EDITOR’S NOTE: After this story went to print, Stone Crosby PC clarified that the firm was not “paid” an additional $513,000, but has held onto $502,250.53 “until it’s time to deposit it into the court as part of an interpleader action.” Associate attorney Lauren M. Collinsworth explained: “In order to assist the Revenue Commissioner with the process of interpleading the funds, the Revenue Commissioner sends the funds to Stone Crosby, P.C. and we hold that money in our trust account until it is time to interplead the funds into the Court.” Lagniappe regrets this error.
In the year since the Baldwin County Commission abruptly switched legal representation due to repeated conflicts of interest, receipts to its county attorney have soared more than 200 percent, but Revenue Commissioner Teddy Faust said it’s for good reason.
In November 2019, after a nine-year affiliation, the commission parted ways with Blackburn & Conner PC, citing the firm’s tendency to recuse itself from important discussions due to conflicting legal relationships. For their final 11 months of work, Blackburn & Conner was paid $293,212.05. On the other hand, in the first 11 months of 2020, the county paid its new firm, Stone Crosby PC, $893,277.60.
But according to county receipts, $513,000 of that amount has been for “excess land sales” rather than “legal services,” an expense Blackburn & Conner never billed for. Faust said the line item is reimbursement for Stone Crosby’s work in getting tax-delinquent properties off the county’s books, and the additional payments reflect their “outstanding job.”
In 2018, the State Legislature passed a bill allowing the county to hold tax lien sales, as opposed to selling delinquent properties for tax. Under the old model, the county would have an auction on properties for which taxes were unpaid and sell them for the taxes, plus 12-15 percent interest of the appraised value of the property. If the owner chooses to redeem the property within the three-year period before the title changes hands, they would have to pay the amount of taxes owed, plus the interest paid on the sale and any interest accrued in the three-year period.
Under the new model, which Faust said is fairer for the property owner, the county holds tax lien auctions where investors bid on the amount of taxes owed only, with interest beginning at 12 percent and declining to 0 percent.
Under the last tax sale using the old model, the county yielded just under $200,000 in property tax but held over $8 million in excess funds, essentially “managing money for investors,” Faust explained. The new model allows the county to transfer the funds “to who it rightfully belongs to.”
“That money was more of a burden than anything,” he said.
For its part, Stone Crosby charges an hourly rate and “has done numerous filings with the courts,” Faust said. “It’s a complex legal process but I’ve been very pleased with them getting this done, because it’s been like an albatross for us.”
As far as standard legal services for the county, between Jan. 1, 2015 and Nov. 5, 2019, Blackburn Conner was paid a total of $1,787,645.11, or an average of $357,529 per year. In comparison, Stone Crosby has been paid $418,158.79 this year for the same type of legal work, although county spokeswoman Sherry-Lea Botop said that uptick is justified by an increased workload this year.
“This has been an exceptionally challenging year,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic and multiple hurricanes created a need for much more legal support as the county traversed complexities around everything from [personal protective equipment] to hurricane recovery. If you factor in all of this, the legal fees are likely much less this year than past years. Response times have been extraordinarily fast as well.”
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