Town Council member Nick Kapoor is questioning why only $130,000 is being proposed to cover legal fees in the fiscal year 2013-14 budget.
“I feel very uncomfortable with this budget,” Kapoor said of the legal fees line item during a Town Council budget workshop Thursday night.
Kapoor, a Democrat, has been questioning how much is being spent on legal fees by the administration of Republican First Selectman Stephen J. Vavrek since he joined the council about a year ago.
The amount spent on legal fees has far exceeded the amount budgeted in the past few years, Kapoor said, pointing out close to $700,000 was expended in 2011-12 when the budgeted amount was $97,000.
During the current 2012-13 fiscal year, the amount spent already has exceeded the $130,000 budget by 46% with bills still coming in and four-and-a-half months still left to go in the fiscal year. Kapoor said the Board of Finance had considered setting a legal fees budget for the current fiscal year of $250,000.
The proposed $130,000 legal fees budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, would be the same amount as budgeted for the current fiscal year. Fees go both to the town attorney and to outside lawyers, many of whom specialize in specific areas of law.
Hard to predict legal costs
Vavrek said predicting how much will be spent on legal fees is impossible, varying from year to year based on the status of lawsuits and other legal issues. Also, one big case can cause a spike in the overall amount being spent. “You can never budget to be sued, and you can never budget for a storm,” Vavrek said.
He said the proposed amount for 2013-14 was based on consultation with Town Attorney Jack Fracassini, and that in some past years the amount spent on legal fees has been less than what was budgeted.
“This was a bad year,” Vavrek said.
The first selectman said Monroe spends less on legal fees than many other communities, noting Bridgeport just spent more than $650,000 on attorney-related fees for a single lawsuit.
Too much means ‘inviting lawsuits’
Republican council member Frank Lieto defended Vavrek’s proposed legal fees budget. “Legal fees are akin to storms,” Lieto said. “You can’t predict them … There’s nothing you can do to control legal fees.”
Lieto said putting too much money into the legal fees budget — perhaps $300,000, for instance — would only be “inviting lawsuits” and would give too much authority and leeway to a first selectman to decide how to spend that money. He said having “too much money in the [legal fees] budget is equally problematic.”
“It’s dangerous for the council to delve into this subject,” said Lieto, an attorney.
Look at the data
Kapoor, however, said the council could base the new legal fees budget on what has been spent in the most recent years. “There is data that we have,” he said.
He would rather end a fiscal year with a little extra money in the legal fees budget than “end up where we’ve been the last two years,” said Kapoor, who also is Monroe Democratic Party chairman.
In addition, Kapoor has questioned where Vavrek and town finance officials have found the money in the budget to cover the higher-than-expected legal fees.
Vavrek said certain other budget line items may be “frozen” to find money needed for unanticipated expenses, a practice that has “happened administration after administration.”