The county attorney's office is understaffed and spends considerably more money processing certain cases than it receives in return, revealed an internal audit.
The audit recommended that the legal staff be increased by two attorneys, in addition to the new attorney already approved this budget year, and that the office change several procedures to reduce wasteful spending.
In interviews with the four attorneys -- one county attorney and three assistants -- the County Bureau of Internal Audit found "there was a strong indication that there was inadequate time to perform job assignments properly."
By analyzing the office's case volume and hours spent on each case, the auditors concluded the attorneys "will fall further behind in their caseload processing if the number of attorneys remains as is."
The salary for an assistant county attorney ranges from $34,400 to $51,600.
County Commissioner Julia W. Gouge said the staffing recommendation will be considered by a county committee which reviews and ranks, based on priority, new position requests. Financing will not be automatic, she said.
The county attorney's office provides counsel to the commissioners and county agencies. It handles most county legal matters including court cases, preparation of leases, contracts, deeds and ordinances, and prosecution of zoning, building and liquor code violations.
The office has become increasingly busy as more government decisions and property acquisitions are being challenged, said Gouge.
In a letter to audit bureau chief Timothy D. Hartman, County Attorney Charles W. "Chuck" Thompson Jr. agreed that the legal staff should be expanded, but not without corresponding increases in the paralegal and secretarial staffs. The audit does not recommend support staff increases.
Thompson wrote that some work is "left undone" because the support staff is overburdened and that adding more attorneys would make the problem worse.
Thompson said the office now "may well have enough attorneys for what we're doing." But he added that the lawyers all work "considerably more" hours than required, calling the situation "the hazard of doing business as an attorney."
By adding attorneys, the legal staff would be able to do its current work more comprehensively and spend more time with county agencies practicing what Thompson calls "preventive law" -- identifying legal conflicts before they become problems, he said.
It also could become the debt-collecting arm of county government and handle a greater caseload from the County Department of Social Services, which often contracts with private law firms, Thompson said.
The attorney approved for this year will be assigned to monitor state and federal legislation and prepare county initiatives for the General Assembly.
An example of inefficient operation within the attorney's office is the collection of debts owed by inmates for medical services received while in the County Detention Center, the audit says.
The county collected about $4,500 in 1989 in reimbursements from inmates while incurring about $39,000 in administrative costs, it says.