ISLAMORADA -- The Village Council won't consider whether to hire an in-house attorney until after it completes negotiations on an Islamorada-wide sewer system.
"I think our focus until the contract is done should be there," Councilman Ted Blackburn said at the Aug. 9 council meeting, referencing a proposed $91.3 million deal with Reynolds Water Islamorada.
Blackburn was joined by Mayor Michael Reckwerdt and Councilman Don Achenberg in blocking the effort of Vice Mayor Ken Philipson to promptly discuss hiring an in-house attorney. Philipson's idea, which he broached last week, is to have a staff attorney work in tandem with the Weiss Serota legal firm that has provided the village's representation for the past 14 years.
"We pay our law firm considerable money to do day-to-day functions," Philipson said, arguing that a staff attorney would be more efficient.
Last week's debate followed a July decision by the council to task Philipson with exploring whether an in-house attorney would provide cost savings.
Philipson came to the Aug. 9 meeting armed with Florida League of Cities data showing that out of 36 towns with between 4,000 and 8,000 residents, only one dedicated a higher portion of its operating expenditures than Islamorada to legal counsel. The 2009 data showed that in that year the village spent $811,000 from its daily operating fund on legal work, or 8 percent of total expenses. Most of the other towns fell below 2 percent.
Philipson said that 2009 was the most recent year for which the League of Cities has compiled the comparison. The village attorney's budget, meanwhile, has decreased significantly since then. The preliminary 2012-13 daily operating budget pencils in $480,0000 for legal expenditures.
Still, Philipson pointed out that $480,000 is approximately 5 percent of the village's proposed daily operating expenditures for next year, well above what most like-sized towns dedicate to legal counsel.
Achenberg, though, argued that straight per capita comparisons aren't the proper way to look at the legal budget. The village, he said, has to spend extra money on land-use counsel due to the Florida Keys' status as an Area of Critical State Concern. And though Achenberg didn't mention it, others have long argued that Islamorada simply has a litigious culture.
"The population of a community, to me, does not determine its legal expenses," Achenberg said. "It's what happens within a community that determines its legal expenses."
Though Achenberg and Reckwerdt exhibited no enthusiasm for discussing an in-house attorney, the concept is likely to resurface soon.
Councilman Dave Purdo has advocated such a step more bluntly and over a longer period of time than Philipson. And Blackburn said he welcomes a Village Council workshop on the matter as well, just not until after the sewer deal is done.
Philipson said he'd like to resolve the question of an in-house attorney before the November election campaign.
But Blackburn said the election schedule isn't important to him.
"We want to think this through, do it correctly, and if it happens before or after an election, so be it," he said.