County delves into contract discussion
WORTHINGTON -- With the clock ticking, Nobles County commissioners met in a special work session Tuesday afternoon with Worthington City Administrator Joe Parker regarding a contract for prosecution services.
At their last board meeting, commissioners received notice from the city stating its desire to continue utilizing the county attorney's office for legal matters.
The letter followed the county's decision in February to discontinue the contract on Feb. 27, 2009, primarily because the county's office is short-staffed and has had to hire outside help -- at $140 per hour -- to fulfill its contractual obligations to the city.
At Tuesday's meeting, County Attorney Gordon Moore explained the city's willingness to continue to pay 25 percent of the county attorney's office budget, up to a staff of five full-time attorneys and 4.4 support staff positions. The city is requesting an answer to its proposal within 60 days.
"Conceptually, the whole thing has worked really well," Moore said of the contract, which was established in 2003. "I think to break away from the city would be a step in the wrong direction. That's how I feel."
The current budget has the city paying $163,000 per year to the county for prosecution services. Parker said it could be difficult to keep costs at that level if the city had to establish its own attorney and staff.
"Maybe we can't do the job for $163,000," Parker said. "The same issue would be where would we find the attorneys.
"The goal here is to make your office efficient and successful," he added. "This is a good relationship ... I'd like to see this thing work myself."
While there may be efficiencies in sharing staff, some of the commissioners contend the city's share of the budget isn't adequate.
"What I have a problem with is paying $130 an hour for city prosecution, and the city only pays 25 percent," Commissioner Diane Their said. "How do we explain that to the county taxpayers?"
Moore suggested that perhaps the city could increase its funding to $240,000.
"I believe the city council will make that leap to $240,000 to keep this (contract) in place," Parker added.
The county attorney's office has been in catch-up mode since losing two of its attorneys, John Gross and Bill Lemons. Their felony caseloads were transferred to Moore and his assistant until new attorneys could be hired. Gross' replacement was hired in late October, while Lemons' replacement will begin work on Monday.
"I think really the key problem has been a recruitment issue," Moore said. "There are people out there interested in a job like this, and they're mostly entry level."
As a result, Moore has had to spend extra time training new hires, which has taken away from his time to do prosecutorial services.
With the high case load and staffing issues in the county attorney's office, Thier asked why the department would want to continue providing prosecution services to the city.
"Having more lawyers in the office will free me up," Moore said. "It leaves more room for more opportunities. More bodies makes the work go faster."
Moore said his staff is cross-trained to handle both county and city cases.
"Part of the beauty of having the attorneys co-locate is they can work together and share responsibility," he added.
When Thier asked what the ideal number of attorneys would be in the office, Moore said, "It's my belief that a five-lawyer office is necessary to run this show."
Nobles County Administrator Mel Ruppert reminded commissioners a lot has changed since the county moved the county attorney's position from part-time to full-time status in 2003. He said the issues the department faces today are growing pains resulting from the transition and taking on the city prosecution services.
Commissioner David Benson said Worthington is a dynamic community and one with growth potential, which may warrant the need for more staffing.
"This is the way to work -- working together," Benson said. "The customer doesn't really care who's working for them, they just want a good job to be done."
"I don't see that the workload is going to lessen in the next five years," added Commissioner Marv Zylstra.
The county plans to continue its discussion on the prosecution services contract at its first meeting in April.
Other items discussed during the work session on Tuesday were:
- A proposal from the City of Worthington to co-locate the Nobles County Library and Information Center with a senior center/community center.
A location has not been specified, nor have any design concepts been discussed. Reaction of board members was mixed, although Benson urged them to continue to look at its options.
- A possible management agreement with Pipestone County Family Services following the retirement of the Nobles County Family Services director, which is anticipated at the end of September. A first draft of the agreement has been written, and Ruppert said work will continue on the proposal.