Renewing the contract with Ellsworth attorney Carey Hipp as Barton County’s legal counselor was in the best interest of the county, the County Commissioner decided Monday morning. This came despite a plea from County Attorney Amy Mellor, who caught most on the commission off guard when she attended the meeting asking to move the counselor’s job to her office and asking for more departmental resources.
The new independent contractor agreement with Hipp, an attorney with Shermann, Hoffman & Hipp LC in Ellsworth, will cost the county $6,000 per month for six months ending Dec. 31, which is double the $3,000 per month she initially agreed to in January. The original agreement ended June 30 with an option to renew.
“While the renewed contract has increased in cost, it is still less than all other bids received in January of 2017,” said county Operations Manager Phil Hathcock. The two other bids then were for $8,000 and $12,000 monthly.
However, before any commissioner could move to approve the agreement, Mellor asked to address the body. She said her office could take over the county council’s duties, which are different from the duties of county attorney, if she had additional staff. This would also help the county attorney’s office handle an increase in its own workload.
“I initially made a proposal to do this for the county for an additional $85,000 per year,” Mellor said. “The $85,000 will allow me to hire an experienced prosecutor. And you would have a county counselor in the courthouse five days a week during business hours.”
Clarifying the issues
Commissioners felt the need to clarify some of Mellor’s statements, and invited the media to return to the courthouse Monday afternoon. While the initial agreement with Hipp was for $3,000 a month, it was based on her working five hours a week. Commission Chairman Jennifer Schartz said both the commission and Hipp realized the work was more involved than originally thought, so the new agreement is based on 10 hours a week.
Schartz also noted that, as an independent contractor, Hipp does not receive fringe benefits from the county, as an employee in the county attorney’s office would.
Mellor said she has nothing against Hipp, but she doesn’t live in Barton County. So, not only is $36,000 going to Ellsworth County over the next six months, but Hipp may not be as accessible as a counselor based in Great Bend would be.
An additional counselor could also alleviate the backlog in Mellor’s office caused by state-mandated electronic filing of subpoenas and other legal documents with the District Court Office. The change went into effect March 1 and “this has increased the workload in my office exponentially in all aspects,” Mellor said.
Although the switch to digital filing may seem easier, “What took a minimal amount of time now takes hours,” she said. “This has resulted in the delaying of filing criminal charges in many cases because my staff is literally drowning in paperwork.”
Now, she said, her office has to prioritize crimes, placing violent crimes at the top of the list, leaving others to wait. The County Attorney’s Office is on pace to handle 600 criminal cases this year.
“I agree with Amy,” said Commissioner Alicia Straub, who knew Mellor would be at the meeting. But, “we’re just stuck in a bad place.”
She said Hipp had the lowest bid, but the county wanted time to evaluate how this arrangement would work; hence it was only for six months.
And, Straub said Hipp was already deeply involved in the county tax sale. It was just easier to stay with her through the end of the year.
“I’m not in favor of paying our county counselor $6,000 per month,” she said. But, averaging the cost of Hipp’s contract over 12 months comes to $4,500 per month, which is in line with other counties. “That’s the only reason I agreed.”
Straub also likes keeping dollars local and doing what the commission can to support the County Attorney’s Office. “The public recognizes there is a significant backlog. This is a service they expect.”
Schartz said Mellor’s requests should be addressed in the next budget, while the contract with Hipp is part of this year’s budget.
“We’re working with two different budget years,” Schartz said. Mellor wants to increase funding for her office “which we don’t have right now. We really need to finish out this budget year, and deal this in the next budget.”
Schartz said the commission included $72,000 in the 2018 budget for a county counselor.
More about the commission’s meeting with the media
The commission requested media representatives return to the courthouse Monday afternoon to clarify statements made in the morning. “We want to make sure the right message gets out,” Schartz said.
They mentioned the five hours per week versus 10, that Hipp was available 24/7 and that 10 percent of the county’s employees live outside the county. Besides, Hipp’s family owns land in Barton County and farms here.
“This commission has always supported the county attorney,” Schartz said. She said they have hired more staff, added an attorney and remodeled the office, totalling $162,000 this year.
Furthermore, “Carey is independent and not tied to an elected position,” Schartz said. This frees her to work equally with all departments.
There is also a pay difference between the public and private sectors, and there is a difference between criminal and civil law (in which Hipp has considerable experience), Schartz said.
“I agree with everything (Mellor) said,” Schartz said. But, she came in at the 11th hour and the county has “finite money.”