Local News

County attorney costs vary just about everywhere

SEBRING - Last month, three of the five Highlands County commissioners said they preferred a full-time, in-house county attorney.

Ross Macbeth, Highlands County's current attorney, bills $153.50 an hour for legal advice and litigation.

If $306,200 - the average annual bill over the past five years for Macbeth's salary and his legal assistants - seems high, county administrators collected data on 40 of 67 Florida counties that shows attorney salaries alone range from $112,151 in Citrus County, population 140,956, to $203,029 in Hillsborough County, population 1.2 million.

Most county attorneys have help in their offices, the survey showed. Assistant county attorney salaries ranged from $66,950 in Alachua County to $103,099, also in Alachua.

Staff assistants and legal assistants range from $34,986 in Marion County to $51,458 in Alachua.

In Martin County, population 146,689, a on-line directory showed a staff attorney - Michael Durham, former in-house attorney for Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton - and four assistant county attorneys. The mostly recently hired is Elizabeth Lenihan, who is Macbeth's daughter. For that reason, Durham was uncomfortable speaking on the record.

The Highlands County staff also calculated legal services per capita. Highlands County pays $3.03 per capita.

In Monroe County, population 73,560, each man, woman and child pays $27.76. The most frugal county is Polk, population 604,792, which gets along on $2.07 per person. The staff survey says Polk has one county attorney and six assistant attorneys, plus a paralegal, a legal secretary and an office manager.

Based on its findings, the county staff suggested an in-house attorney would be paid $120,000 per year, along with a $45,000 paralegal. With benefits, the combined office would cost $217,198.

Greg Harris, who voted against looking at a full-time county attorney, isn't convinced.

"I think it's going to cost more," Harris, who chairs the board, said Thursday. "I'll bet dollars to doughnuts."

"I will reiterate my point," Commissioner Jim Brooks said in the March meeting. "It's not that I think we're going to save any money." He and Commissioner Ron Handley believe that an in-house attorney will be more convenient to the staff and that efficiency will improve.

"I don't think that's going to happen either," Harris said.

Macbeth, who has worked for Highlands County since 1990, comes with intangibles, Harris said. "He's got a photographic memory. It's just amazing what he knows, how many projects he's worked on. He remembers that stuff."