04/01/04 — County, town attorneys get retirement pay

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County, town attorneys get retirement pay

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on April 1, 2004 2:03 PM

Wayne County makes retirement system payments for both of its lawyers, and so does the town of Mount Olive.

The county has two lawyers, County Attorney Borden Parker and Tax Attorney Dortch Langston. Mount Olive's town attorney is Carroll Turner. All three men have private law practices, as well.

The county and the town are paying for them to be in the N.C. Local Government Retirement System, which requires employees to work at least 30 hours a week to be eligible.

Mount Olive Mayor Ruff Huggins said that Turner does not work a minimum of 30 hours a week. The town began paying for Turner's retirement plan in September.

County Manager Lee Smith says that Parker and Langston work the required amount. "As far as I'm concerned, they work that much and are qualified, no question," Smith said.

But the two lawyers do not receive sick leave, vacation and other benefits usually associated with full-time employees.

Smith said the two county lawyers are "contractual employees." They are regarded as full-time employees and receive W-2 forms from the county but are exempt from the county's personnel policy. The lawyers are given the retirement system payments and also health insurance as part of the contracts, Smith said.

Smith said the practice of providing health insurance and retirement benefits for lawyers was commonplace.

The lawyer for Wayne County public schools does not receive retirement pay.

Controversy arose this week when it was revealed that the city of Goldsboro had paid thousands of dollars toward City Attorney Harrell Everett's retirement, even though state officials had said that he was not eligible to participate in the system. The system is only for full-time employees working at least 30 hours a week. According to city records, Everett receives $60,000 in legal fees a year, plus $90,000 for legal services. The city pays about $2,500 a year into his retirement plan.

The county also makes annual payments into the same retirement system for both Parker and Langston. Those payments totaled more than $3,400 this year.

County Manager Smith said that was not unusual.

Parker receives a salary of $53,000, and the county has budgeted up to $42,000 for legal fees for general services. He also earns money for work for the Social Services Department, including work in child support enforcement.

Langston's salary is $21,000, plus up to $4,000 in legal fees.

The school system has a contractual agreement with its lawyer, Jack Edwards, to represent the school system and the Board of Education. Edwards is paid a quarterly retainer fee for his legal services, which totals $29,700 a year.

Nan Barwick, assistant superintendent for finance, said Edwards attends school board meetings and work sessions and acts as a consultant on lawsuits or matters that have legal ramifications for the school system.

Edwards could also be paid for any special legal circumstances above and beyond his other duties, but the retainer has typically covered such services, she said. He is not paid anything toward insurance or retirement benefits.

State Retirement Director Michael Williamson confirmed that Mount Olive Town Attorney Carroll Turner has been on the state retirement program since September.

Mount Olive Mayor Ruff Huggins said the town started paying 4.8 percent of Turner's salary into the retirement program. He said Turner also pays 6 percent of his salary into the plan.

The town pays Turner $100 an hour for his services, with no insurance provided, according to Huggins. He said Turner's pay is strictly on an hourly compensation, and he does not work a minimum of 30 hours.

"It's fairly new," said the mayor of the town's funding Turner's retirement plan. "He's paid for the number of hours, whether it's one hour or 100 hours ... He's probably due more than the $100 we give him, and we worked out the retirement."

Turner bills for things like time, phone calls and travel, and it's included in the actual expenses as "legal fees." Turner's legal fees totaled $32,000 last year. He and the town manager, Ray McDonald, work at the pleasure of the board, Huggins said. When Turner's compensation was renegotiated in September, he was hired for another two years.

Turner said he didn't want to discuss his agreement with the town. He said McDonald negotiates for him.

He said it's his opinion that a wise town manager will try to keep an experienced town attorney on the staff.

"I guess employment arrangements vary from town to town," he said. "I wouldn't know what the majority of the towns do."

Turner said that over the years people develop valuable knowledge about a town's operation. If that experienced town attorney resigns for some reason, and if they hire someone else, that new city attorney might not be familiar with municipal law, he said.

"It could set back a major project a year, like this regional sewer project in Mount Olive," he said.

Turner said he knows larger cities will often have full staffs, with town attorneys and several assistants working full-time. The smaller towns can't afford to do that, he said. Even the hourly rates vary tremendously, he said.