The Lafayette City-Parish Council agreed Tuesday to nearly double this year’s budget for legal fees, adding $675,000 to shore up the legal department through the end of the year.
The council voted 8-1 to approve a midyear budget amendment to boost the legal fees account from $723,000 to about $1.4 million.
City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott said his department has already spent most of the $723,000 in the original budget.
Escott, who was named city-parish attorney this year by first-term Mayor-President Joel Robideaux, said he started the year with a budget that was already much lower than the $993,000 spent last year.
On top of that, he said, the legal department has handled a larger-than-normal share of work in recent months.
“The legal services for LCG (Lafayette Consolidated Government) are reactive as opposed to proactive,” he said. “The legal department is at the mercy of actions of third parties, whatever they choose to do. … The legal department does not actively seek out work to do on its own.”
The legal fees account is used for expenses related to drafting and reviewing contracts, policies and regulations, as well as representing city-parish government in court battles in disputes over zoning, permits or other issues not involving claims for monetary damages.
Expense for those claims — slip-and-falls, vehicle crashes, police excessive force — generally come from a different pot of money.
Escott told council members several big city-parish contracts were up for renewal this year, such as the garbage and recycling contract and the contract for the city’s traffic-camera enforcement program.
City-parish government was also recently entangled in a brief but intense court battle in a lawsuit filed by the 15th Judicial District Attorney’s Office over a budget cut.
One unexpectedly high expense has been for the legal review of public records requests, he said.
News media often used public records requests as a tool to obtain documents from government, but Escott said there have been a rising number of requests from ordinary citizens and interest groups.
Some public records requests seek routine information and need little legal review, but others need scrutiny for fear city-parish government might release confidential or privileged information.
Councilman William Theriot was the only “no” vote on raising the legal fees budget.
“Over the years we’ve seen legal fees increase year after year after year,” he said.
Escott responded said he would expect legal fees to grow over the years with the size of city-parish government.
He defended payments to attorneys, saying city-parish government uses a standard fee schedule for all legal work that is probably below market rate — from $100 an hour to $175 an hour, depending on experience.
He said the state Attorney General’s Office pays up $225 an hour for experienced attorneys.