ALGONQUIN TOWNSHIP – Lawyers representing elected officials have billed Algonquin Township more than $312,000 in the past six months, and legal costs are expected to climb, with taxpayers footing the bills.
That’s more than the $299,000 the township has in its general assistance fund to help low-income residents meet basic living requirements.
“It’s just a crying shame,” said township Trustee Dan Shea, who sees no end in sight for ballooning legal fees. “In 30 years, I’ve never had anything that was of this level. My estimate is this is going to go over half a million dollars.”
Fiscal 2018 for the township began April 1 and will end March 31. Township officials allotted $299,050 for the general assistance fund, a pot of money that includes line items to help low-income residents pay for utilities, prescription drugs, rent and other basic needs. Through nine months, the township has used $88,079 – or 29.5 percent of the fund.
The mounting legal fees come from at least four law firms, according to records obtained by the Northwest Herald.
Since June, Robert T. Hanlon & Associates has represented Highway Commissioner Andrew Gasser and the highway department in a fight against International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 and the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
In total, Hanlon’s firm has charged the highway department $202,427, according to billing records. It has billed the department for 571 hours of work.
Records show that labor attorney Michael Ernest Avakian has helped Hanlon in his work for Algonquin Township. The Washington, D.C.-based attorney spent hours researching, editing and finalizing responses regarding the union, according to billing records. He spent hours researching the distinction between the highway department and the township’s road district. Gasser’s legal team has claimed that the union failed to serve the proper entity.
James Kelly, the township’s hired attorney, is a lawyer with the Matuszewich & Kelly law firm. Kelly represents Algonquin Township Supervisor Charles Lutzow, a first-term elected official entrenched in a conflict with Clerk Karen Lukasik.
Since June, Kelly’s firm has billed Algonquin Township $22,917 for 132 hours of work. July was Kelly’s busiest month: He spent 60 hours working on Lutzow’s case, charging a total of $10,428.
Dave McArdle and his firm – Zukowski, Rogers, Flood & McArdle – represent Lukasik. For their services since June, the firm billed the township a total of $69,472 for 276 hours of work.
Thomas Gooch, the lawyer representing former highway commissioner Bob Miller in his battle against Gasser, billed the township $15,482. Because Gooch represents a former township employee, the township’s insurance covers his fees, Shea said.
Joseph Gottemoller, an attorney with Madsen Sugden & Gottemoller, charged the township $1,875 after he stepped in as a receiver in the clerk’s battle with the highway commissioner.
The cadre of lawyers has inflated the township’s total legal bills to more than $312,000, billing documents show. That works out to about $3.50 for each of the township’s 88,389 residents.
At about $47 a ton, the same money could have bought about 6,640 tons of road salt – enough for all of the township’s roads for more than three years, based on average use of about 2,000 tons a year.
Other lawyers tied to Algonquin Township see legal fees only growing in the next six months.
“I’ve got news for you,” said Steven Brody, an attorney representing Anna May Miller, Bob Miller’s wife and his former secretary. “Half a million would be light.”
The mounting legal fees have forced township officials to move around money to cover bills.
In November, Algonquin Township trustees approved a transfer of $194,870 from the road district’s $3 million coffer into a fund to cover Gasser’s legal bills.
The move unsettled some township officials and several residents upset about how the most populous municipality in McHenry County has been spending tax dollars.
It wasn’t the first time trustees had to juggle money to pay for legal bills. In August, the trustees approved the transfer of $70,000 into Gasser’s fund for legal counsel. Trustees also transferred $35,000 from the town fund to cover Lukasik’s line item for legal services.
Section 3 of the Illinois Municipal Budget Law authorizes transfers between the various items within any fund as long as the transfer does not exceed 10 percent of the total amount appropriated for the fund.
The township’s road and bridge budget at the start of the fiscal year was $2.3 million, according to records. The amended budget allots $290,370 for legal counsel. Gasser has spent $242,414, according to December financial records.
Trustee Melissa Victor pegs all of the legal trouble on Gasser’s election.
“It makes me sick to know how this money is being spent,” Victor said. “And he keeps talking about how he has cut the levy.”
The Algonquin Township road district this year slashed its property tax levy by 5 percent – a cut that amounts to $196,391.
“It makes me really, really sad for the taxpayers,” Victor said. “I really truly feel Mr. Gasser is trying to bankrupt the township.”
Gasser could not be reached for comment.
Trustee Dave Chapman said he feels horrible about legal fees he chalks up to “shenanigans.”
“We had this new regime come in, and from from Day 1 it’s been spend, spend, spend, spend, spend,” Chapman said. “It really is time to cut it and find other ways of making things happen for the residents.”
Lutzow said an end to the lawsuits can’t come soon enough.
“We need to get these lawsuits settled so we can move forward,” he said.
Trustee Rachael Lawrence said some of the legal fights are frivolous, particularly bills charged by Kelly for helping the township clerk fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests.
However, Lawrence said the legal bills tied to Gasser’s lawsuit are worth the cost. The highway commissioner’s lawsuit is helping uncover questionable spending by his predecessor, she said.
Bob Miller, who served as highway commissioner for 24 years, now is the subject of a grand jury investigation into official misconduct related to road district spending over the past decade. He has not been charged with a crime.
“I do believe that we owe it to our taxpayers to fully uncover how deep the alleged malfeasance goes,” Lawrence said.