St. Joseph County’s 2022 legal spending exceeds $1.2 million

Published: Nov. 10, 2022 at 6:21 PM EST
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ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, Ind. (WNDU) - 16 News Now Investigates is looking into how much St. Joseph County is spending on legal fees this year. This comes after concerns were raised about County GOP spending at a press conference held by St. Joseph County Democrats in October.

“As of October 11th of this year, the Commissioners office legal fees have exceeded $900,000. That’s 900-thousand dollars of my money and your money,” said Michael McManus, a St. Joseph County resident and lawyer.

16 News Now Investigates has been fact-checking this claim, digging into public records to find out how much is actually being spent. We’ve learned that through October 11, 2022, St. Joseph County has spent $1,245,139.95 on legal fees. That’s over half a million more than the $437,004.09 they spent on legal fees in all of 2021.

One reason for the increase is that billable rates for attorneys have gone up from $150 an hour in 2021 to $250 an hour this year. Still, if last year’s legal spending was billed at this year’s rate, that is around $728,000, not over a million.

A big chunk of the legal spending the county has done so far this year was on legal fees related to redistricting efforts. As we previously reported, the grand total of legal bills for the St. Joseph County’s redistricting process amounted to over $500,000. This comes after County Council members filed suit against the maps approved by County Commissioners, only to later settle the matter by drawing up revised maps.

Another reason for more legal fees this year is the legal review of programs put in place by the federal government. County Attorney Michael Misch says these programs “required additional legal attention to ensure the county was in compliance with federal mandates” and to “ensure program initiatives were handled properly”.

This extra legal attention was given to the Emergency Rental Assistance program, which helped some county residents pay rent. It was also given to around $52 million in American Rescue Plan funding, which the county attorney says was used for non-profits in the community, road and bridge improvements, and could soon be used for a new park in Granger.

Other legal spending includes legal assistance to get the new code enforcement department up and running after the County Council and Commissioners worked together to establish the program earlier this year.

The county attorney also tells 16 Investigates that there are “60 or more active litigation cases the county is defending”. Additional legal fees are issued for day-to-day county operations in multiple departments, things like contract review, personnel issues, compliance with policies and procedures, and real estate transactions.

While this explains the county’s legal spending so far in 2022, the year isn’t over yet, and a bigger legal battle is brewing. A lawsuit was brought by the state and county branches of the Republican Party over the handling of absentee ballots in St. Joseph County, which means more legal fees to be paid.

In an engagement letter dated October 8, the law firm Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP says they’ve “been engaged to provide legal services to the County in regards to the threatened litigation arising from and related to the 2022 Elections and ballot processing”. The fees outlined in the letter are $450 per hour for partner rates and $335 an hour for associate rates.

Taxpayers are starting to notice this increased legal spending, and at the St. Joseph County Commissioners meeting on October 18, some voiced concerns over it. But Board President Carl Baxmeyer said that is not the focus of the St. Joseph County Commissioners at this time.

“All this talk about wasting taxpayer money and overstepping authority, that just is to divert attention from what really is driving this whole thing, and that this should be a bipartisan method way of handling absentee ballots,” he told 16 News Now on October 18.

We reached out to Board President Baxmeyer multiple times to hear more on his thoughts on the county’s spending, but we have not heard back.