Although a handful of key positions remain vacant, Mayor Sandy Stimpson is spending about $568,000 less than former Mayor Sam Jones on executive-level appointees, according to a salary comparison Stimpson prepared for the City Council last month.

The figure represents the elimination or consolidation of a number of positions in the Jones administration, as well as an arrangement with the city attorney where in exchange for his salary, Ricardo Woods and his law firm Burr & Forman, work on a retainer.

“The roles are a little bit different,” Woods said of his position. “What [former city attorney Larry] Wettermark was doing was building on economic development. I don’t take care of that so I do not take a traditional salary. Everything is straight litigation at cost, so you have a set retainer each month in order to control costs.”

Ricardo Woods

Ricardo Woods

Woods explained that the $55,000 per month retainer earned by his law firm, Burr & Forman, LLP, is actually a “blend” of a per-hour rate and flat attorney fees that are designed to keep costs down.

“What is different is, Mr. Wettermark had a salary that he billed against and then there was his firm’s hourly billing on a regular monthly basis,” Woods said. “What’s not different is we have multiple firms just like Wettermark did that are doing work for the city. Another similarity is our firm does the majority of the work. That’s a good model and the reason we do that is to make sure we’ve got the work in the way the administration wants it to go. You’re staying in direct contact with how your cases are moving forward.”

From 2009-2013, Wettermark sent the majority of the city’s outside legal work to his own firm, Wettermark, Everest, Rutens and Galliard, LLP. Over that time period, billing to his firm represented about $2 million. He also earned a salary of $92,602.

In the fiscal year ending September 2013, the total legal fees and expenses for the city were $786,479. According to the Stimpson administration, through January 2014, the city has spent  $288,302 on outside legal fees and expenses, part of which was expended before the new administration took office.

The numbers do not include $1.2 million budgeted for 10 staff attorneys in the city’s legal department.

Burr & Forman’s retainer is based on average costs over the previous five years and ideally would decrease over time, Woods said.

“We tried to find something that would be cost effective,” he said. “It’s really hard to gauge litigation costs because you can’t predict who’ll sue you, and you don’t know what accidents might happen. But you can do your best to predict what the cost indicator will be and the best thing you can to do to control that is to build in a set number. Our retainer is designed to be a bargain for the client and a way to measure costs. It adds a level of predictability because what you’re giving the taxpayer is a measure, or close to a measure, of the largest part of what they are going to be fighting.”

Getting back to administrative salaries, Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said even when the administration is fully staffed, spending should be “substantially” less. Cooper earns $110,000 per year, which is more than his predecessor Al Stokes, who earned $102,211 as the chief of staff in the Sam Jones administration.

But Cooper pointed out the comparison was “apples to oranges” because of the elimination of such positions as the Executive Director of Cultural and Civic Development, which formerly paid Bobby Bostwick $91,832 per year and the Executive Director of Administrative Services, which formerly paid Barbara Drummond $89,253.

Further savings were achieved by the elimination of the Office of Strategic Initiatives and Citismart and a handful of secretarial positions. John Bell, the former public works director who was the city’s highest paid employee until his retirement this year, earned $161,333, or about $51,000 more than his replacement, Bill Harkins.

Unfilled positions include the Fire Chief, who will earn $120,000 per year and the Executive Director of Public Safety, whose salary has not been determined, Cooper said.

“Including the salaries of outstanding executive directors and administrative assistants, we estimate a total payroll of around $1,617,000 per year, which is still about $108,000 less than they were before,” Cooper said. “And the administration will be much more streamlined.”

Because executive staff are not merit employees, the administration does not have to advertise the positions, but Cooper said they are actively recruiting candidates for open positions.

“What the mayor will do is turn to his advisory pool and we will work with community members and stakeholders to ID viable candidates,” he said. “We hope to be fully staffed this year.”