In a run-up to the annual budget hearings due to start May 15, the Mesquite City Council heard a presentation by the city attorney at a special meeting Tuesday, May 7. After several contentious discussions in past council meetings about the attorney’s office, it turned out to be much ado about nothing.
Councilwoman Annie Black had raised concerns about contracting with an outside law firm, Davis Van Cleve (DVC), at an annual cost of $200,000 rather than directly employing a city attorney and deputy city attorney. She also balked at what she said was an outsized office budget of $632,000.
City Attorney Bob Sweetin is employed by DVC and draws a minimal $5,000 city salary which allows him access to health insurance and retirement benefits. The DVC contract gives the city access to four other lawyers in the firm at no extra cost.
During his budget review, Sweetin explained that his office received a grant worth $73,802 that pays for a Victim Advocate. The city pays $11,033 plus other in-kind donations as its part of the grant position.
Other staff members in the city attorney’s office include a full time paralegal, a legal support assistant who is shared with other offices, a part-time deputy city attorney, a summer law clerk and two part-time interns. The total salary cost of all employees plus benefits comes in at $288,927. When the DVC contract expense is added in, Sweetin pegged the total at $476,180.
“If we eliminate the DVC contract and move back to a two-person concept with an attorney and deputy attorney, the finance department put that cost at $533,477,” Sweetin said. “We are saving money right now under this process.”
Sweetin said he has increased the number of employees in his office from when he first began in large part because of an increase in workload. He explained that the number of city employees had increased by 59 in the past eight years with 16 of those employed full-time.
“As other city departments grow, especially the police department, that causes more work for our office,” Sweetin said.
The number of criminal filings the city attorney’s office handles increased from 1,195 in 2013 to 2,611 in 2018. The number of those that actually went to trial also increased from 428 in 2013 to 594 in 2018. Sweetin shares the caseload with the contracted part-time deputy attorney.
Sweetin said there were only three civil cases handled by his office in 2015. That jumped to 10 civil cases in 2018. One of those cases is now in front of the Nevada Supreme Court, which has caused him extra work and time, he said.
“There is no less,” Sweetin said about the time he spends on city business under the DVC contract. “The city is not paying more for less.”
Councilwoman Black said “I’m not up here to attack people but I feel I have a responsibility to ask questions.” She added that the numbers provided were vague and unclear.
Black asked Sweetin about access to other attorneys at the Davis Van Cleve firm. Sweetin said the contract provides unlimited access without added expenses or charges to the city.
She also expressed concerns paying Sweetin’s benefits under his status as a contract employee. “To me, that’s double-dipping. You either work for them or you work for us,” she said. There was no follow-up discussion to her statement.
Black said Sweetin’s explanation that his office staff had to grow because other department staff was increasing was off base.
“I don’t find that an adequate justification for growing staff,” she said. “What I do find justifiable for staff growth is the growth of the city [population]. The budget and the staff has grown much faster than the population.”
“My intent in my explanation was not to say that because other departments have been able to hire, therefore I should be able to hire,” Sweetin said. “When other departments grow, the increased workload on the attorney’s office is burdened. There is a direct affect. Because there are more things going on in the city, we have more business on our end.”
Other council members had few questions for Sweetin with most of them praising his work effort and ability to respond to their questions and needs.
Public hearings on the remaining portions of the budget are set for May 15 and 16 at 2 p.m. each day. The city attorney’s budget will be incorporated into the rest of the budget with final approval set for the May 28 council meeting.