Health and retirement benefits to 15 part-time, politically connected attorneys contributed to St. Clair County spending more than $1 million in non-criminal legal costs in the past year, about double the cost of the same services in neighboring Madison County.
All the part-time attorneys contributed financially to past campaigns of politicians in the county's ruling Democratic party, according to records with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
For example, 11 of the attorneys donated at least a combined $16,140 to the St. Clair County Democratic Central Committee since 1999.
Republican County Board members Ed Cockrell, of New Athens, and Nick Miller, of Lebanon, said they believe the attorneys' political contributions and connections made a difference in the selection of the appointments.
Board Chairman Mark Kern disputes the assertion and said "in order to get qualified people to work in the State's Attorney's Office, I think those benefits are necessary because the pay levels are pretty slim."
St. Clair County spent about $1,046,000 in civil legal costs in 2012. In comparison, Madison County spent about $563,000. While the two counties are nearly identical in the number of their residents, the difference in legal costs stems from St. Clair County paying more money to outside law firms and having 15 more attorneys than Madison County providing legal counsel.
The additional attorneys were an "obscene" cost for St. Clair County, Miller said. Miller characterized the practice as "nothing more than white-collar welfare for the politically connected."
"Especially when (Board Chairman) Mark Kern touts he is serving taxpayers with a conservative budget like he did in November," Miller said. "He's trying to claim it's such a lean budget, but how much could he cut if he stopped hiring cronies?"
Kern said Miller's "characterizations are unfair and untrue" and he was not responsible for hiring attorneys.
St. Clair County spent more than $531,000 to employ 18 attorneys for civil legal work in the past year. Fifteen of those attorneys were hired on an as-needed basis but received full benefits, such as health insurance at an estimated average cost of $10,280 per attorney. County officials declined to release exact costs per employee, but gave a weighted average instead of health benefits cost for all employees.
The part-time attorneys cost taxpayers a total of more than $290,000 -- nearly $171,000 of which paid for full health and retirement benefits for the attorneys.
Miller questioned why the county was covering the cost of benefits for the attorneys.
"If I hire an attorney to represent me in a lawsuit, I don't pay for their health and retirement benefits," Miller said. "Why are we paying them as if they are an employee?"
Five of the part-time attorneys were hired to provide legal counsel for county administration or civil disputes. The remaining 10 were appointed by judges in the Circuit Court.
Miller believes the total number of part-time attorneys could be consolidated and the savings would be better spent on other programs, possibly to address the county's nearly 11 percent unemployment rate.
"The saying is the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. But in St. Clair County, the politically connected get richer, and the poorer get poorer," Miller said.
Kern said it might be possible to consolidate the attorneys, but it depended upon the hours each worked.
In comparison, Madison County relies upon three attorneys, two of whom are part-time workers, within its State's Attorney's Office to provide legal counsel to county officials at a total cost of $214,500. The lone full-time attorney, John McGuire, is also responsible for a felony trial docket and serves as the primary attorney handling the Alton misdemeanor and traffic docket of more than 5,000 cases annually.
Randolph and Clinton counties do not provide health or retirement benefits to any part-time employees providing civil legal services. Monroe County provides retirement benefits for a single clerk working within the Circuit Clerk and State's Attorney offices.
Attorneys' wages were not a factor in determining the receipt of benefits. For example, Preston K. Johnson Jr. earned $452 in wages yet received $213 in retirement money and full health benefits. County officials declined to provide a detailed invoice related to Johnson's compensation claiming an exemption to the Freedom of the Information Act because his work was within the judicial department.
"The system is functioning and we believe that we get good representation from the State's Attorney's Office," Kern said.
State's Attorney Brendan Kelly said his office only hires three part-time attorneys from the Becker, Paulson and Hoerner law firm to help with specialty cases. The firm has worked for the county for 26 years, Kelly said.
The law firm's attorneys, Garrett Hoerner, Kevin T. Hoerner and Alvin Paulson, received a total of $45,583 in wages and more than $37,000 worth of benefits for the work. The law firm also billed the county more than $333,240 related to civil lawsuits in 2012.
Kelly said he cut 40 percent of the budget for part-time help last year in order to hire more full-time attorneys.
St. Clair County also outspent Madison County for legal services to fight civil legal battles in 2012. St. Clair County spent more than $514,000 and Madison County spent nearly $348,000 last year -- a difference of $166,000.
Kern said the county is willing to fight for what it believes is right and a high number of the lawsuits stem from inmates incarcerated in St. Clair County Jail.
"We tend to fight things that when we think we're right we go to court because we are protecting the taxpayers' dollars," Kern said. "If you don't fight lawsuits and everything is settled, you have less legal expenses but tend to have more lawsuits in the future. We are resolute in making sure when we believe we are right in something we take it very seriously and only settle if it makes total financial sense."
Attorney James Daniels with the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents multiple unions in negotiations with the county, disputes Kern's assertion.
"It has become manifestly apparent over the past few years (that county officials) would rather write a blank check to private attorneys to fund endless, unsuccessful appeals than to actually comply with the parties' labor contracts, or the rulings of the Illinois Labor Relations Board, or the State's Circuit and Appellate Courts," Daniels said.
Daniels cites ongoing disputes with the county concerning contractual obligations and the use of non-union employees to police MetroLink.
"Currently, the county is preparing to go to interest arbitration with its correctional officers, having been unwilling to offer them a raise that comes anywhere close to the rate of inflation," Daniels said. "It is also currently litigating in court to defend its right to pay its 911 dispatchers who have worked 31 years almost the exact amount that it pays those who have worked only 12 months. In short, the county continues to ignore both its contractual obligations and common sense, and will apparently spend any amount of taxpayers' dollars to do so."
The dispute regarding MetroLink-policing stems from 2009 when the county gave non-union employees work previously performed by union deputies, Daniels said. The county unsuccessfully appealed a Labor Relations Board decision ordering the disbanding of the non-union group to the Appellate Court, and then the Illinois Supreme Court.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2501. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DanKelleyBND.