The town's legal expenses often exceeds its funding in the operating budget, but Town Councilman Nick Kapoor noticed enormous overages over the past two years, including an over 270 percent overrun this year.
Kapoor brought it up at several council meetings and, on Wednesday night, the Board of Finance discussed the issue during a special meeting.
"It's a problem," Kapoor said. "When you are over 270 percent over a line item, something's wrong and the first selectman is the proposer of the townside of the budget."
The legal expense line item is listed under the First Selectman's Office in the operating budget.
Planning & Zoning lawsuits are the most significant expenditures and though Town Attorney Jack Fracassini can handle court cases, Board of Finance member Ted Quinlan noted that Pullman & Comley has been hired to represent the P&Z Commission in 30 out of 35 pending cases.
First Selectman Steve Vavrek has told Kapoor to ask the P&Z Commission about the overruns because the commission is the client in those cases, but during the Board of Finance meeting, P&Z Chairman Richard Zini said — after interviewing candidates — the commission only makes a recommendation when special counsel is needed. He said the first selectman ultimately decides who to hire for a case.
Zini also noted that the commission only responds to litigation and said the town's legal council knows about new cases before the commission does.
According to numbers shown by Kapoor, in the current fiscal year the town budgeted $97,000 for legal fees, but the actual costs are $453,062 and counting. Town Controller Heidi Meade said Pullman & Comley has only sent bills up to March and the town attorney up until February.
In fiscal year 2010-11, the town also budgeted for $97,000, but actual legal expenses came in at $189,832, according to Kapoor.
Board of Finance Chairman Mark Reed said, "There's obviously a concern why legal fees are up so much. There are a lot of old planning and zoning cases that go way, way back."
P&Z Vice Chairman Patrick O'Hara said one case goes all the way back to 2004.
Reed said, "These kind of expenditures, you can't anticipate because they hang around forever."
Quinlan said, "To me, you can get an assessment of when it will end."
He added, that a quarter-of-a-million-dollar overage with some lawyers not having sent a bill in months makes him "squeamish" for next year.
"When is the blood letting going to stop?" Quinlan asked.
Of the pending lawsuits, Zini said, "Now, your request was when are these going to end, well the commission would like them all to end. We're also taxpayers. We're not looking to spend money, but I think the board needs to realize the town needs to defend itself against legal action when it comes to zoning issues."
Zini said the commission recently closed out four cases and said the town should receive a pending credit from an insurance carrier reimbursement for legal cases (including zoning), which has not been accounted for in this fiscal year. He added that it is a significant amount.
Though overruns are high this fiscal year. The budget for 2011-12 and 2012-13 have already been approved. Reed said, "We have to live with what we have right now, but when we define the budget next year, we have to know what's going on."
After the meeting, Kapoor praised the Board of Finance for looking into the matter.
"I understand the complexities of the content of the cases," he said. "My issue is with budgeting. If these cases were older, the first selectman, during budget season, should have been aware of their possible expenditures and budgeted accordingly."