TUPELO – The Tupelo City Council appears poised to reject Mayor Jason Shelton’s proposed budget during his first year in office, opposing his effort to create an in-house city attorney.
Shelton included the in-house attorney position in his budget as a way to wean the city away from a contract with Mitchell, McNutt and Sams, a law firm that has handled legal services for the city for 36 of the past 40 years.
However, he has been unable to convince a majority of the council that his in-house city attorney proposal would benefit the city.
Beyond the issue of city legal services, the council and mayor seem to agree on the $37.1 million budget that includes no tax increase and doesn’t dip into city reserves or rely on selling bonds to balance expenses with revenues.
Shelton frames the discussion about the in-house city attorney as trying to save the city taxpayers by paying $90,000 annually for a lawyer to work exclusively with the city. He would have the city pay $60,000 to contract with a law firm to assist with overflow legal work and cases currently handled by Mitchell, McNutt and Sams that would have a negative impact by changing attorneys.
Information from the city clerk’s office shows the city has paid the law firm an average of $277,328 each fiscal year from 2002-2013 for contractual services along with expenses related to defending the city against lawsuits not covered in the contract. Additionally, the city paid the firm $599,538 from 2006-2012 related to annexation costs.
Council members Markel Whittington of Ward 1, Lynn Bryan of Ward 2, Buddy Palmer of Ward 5 and Mike Bryan of Ward 6 oppose the mayor’s proposal to go with the in-house attorney. Nettie Davis of Ward 4, Willie Jennings of Ward 7 and Jim Newell of Ward 3 side with the mayor.
“It’s mind-boggling that the interests of a single law firm is being put above the interests of the taxpayers,” Shelton said during Thursday’s budget meeting.
The mayor said he would veto any budget that requires the city to continue using Mitchell, McNutt and Sams as the primary provider of legal services to the city.
Whittington said he opposes the in-house attorney proposal since it increases city personnel costs, Mike Bryan said he doesn’t think the change would save money, Lynn Bryan said the council must have input on who the mayor wants to hire in the position and Palmer said he needs more information before he can support the proposal.
Whittington said he would support the position if the mayor reduced overall personnel costs, which hover around 65.6 percent of the city’s total proposed budget.
“We can’t stop growing something until we stop feeding it,” he said.
State law requires the city pass the budget for Fiscal Year 2014 by Sept. 15. The City Council will have a special meeting Tuesday to pass the budget.
Without enough support on the council to pass Shelton’s budget, Whittington said the council likely will vote on an alternative budget that doesn’t include the in-house city attorney.
If the council approves a budget without funding for the in-house attorney but doesn’t include funding to contract with an outside law firm, it’s unclear who will provide legal services to the city.
“We just may not have a lawyer to start the budget year,” Shelton said.