90.3 WBHM Birmingham-- Across the United States, city and county governments are laying off employees in droves to deal with budget deficits. Jefferson County is no exception. It is nearly $5 billion in debt. Last year it had to lay off more than a thousand employees.

So it may come as a surprise that the county's legal team appears to be among the highest paid local government attorneys in the country. WBHM's Tanya Ott has been crunching the numbers and has this report.


Some yearly salaries to consider:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder = $196,700

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts = $223,500

Jefferson County's Attorney Jeffrey Sewell = $375,003.02+

(That's more than double Alabama Attorney General Troy King's salary and he's the highest paid state attorney general in the country.)

"I would think the employees would not be happy about it considering that some of their pay is probably not where it should be."

Kevin Hughins is vice president of Jefferson County Employees Association. He's one of those county employees that was laid off last year. He was eventually rehired and works as a systems analyst in the county's IT department. But he was surprised to hear how much the county attorney makes.

"Frankly, it seems a lot high to me..."

Michael Thompson is County Administrator of Baldwin County (AL), which pays its top in-house attorney $85K to $135K. Only three Alabama counties have an in-house legal team: Jefferson, Baldwin and Mobile. Michael Thompson says it makes sense to have a staff legal team, instead of hiring private firms to do all a county's work.

"I think people need to keep an open mind," says Jefferson County Commissioner Jim Carns. He says at first blush the $375K starting pay sounds ridiculous. But when the county hires an outside law firm it pay $350 to $450 an hour for an attorney. Carns says for full-time work, that translates to a salary of $800K a year, so $375K is a bargain.

"This is a hard thing from a PR standpoint," Carns says. "But the county is getting somewhat of a good deal compared to what we'd be doing if we didn't have these people."

Carns says he doesn't think the county could keep its top attorney if it paid less.

Local Attorneys Disagree

WBHM talked to several local attorneys, ranging from a private practice personal injury attorney to a lawyer with a 15-office firm. They all agreed the $375K starting pay for Jefferson County's attorney is way too high. They say that, broadly speaking, attorneys at Birmingham's big law firms might make anywhere from $100K to $500K and up.

According to PayScale.com (a website that uses Alabama State Bar data) the median salary for an attorney in Alabama is $68,393.** The salary range from Jefferson County's fourth highest paid attorney is $127K to $197K.

"There are a lot of overpaid people in the county..."

David Carrington is a Vestavia Hills city council member, but come November he'll be a Jefferson County Commissioner. He's a republican who campaigned on fiscal responsibility. He says when he takes office the first thing he's going to do is call for an audit of county books.

"We're going to look at department by department, line by line, employee by employee," says Carrington. "And we're going to have to make some tough decisions about where we can cut spending."

Carrington says he values the current county attorney's significant institutional knowledge on things like the occupational tax and the sewer debt crisis, but he says everything is on the table when it comes to making Jefferson County government more efficient.

~ Tanya Ott, September 21, 2010.

**CORRECTION: The Alabama State Bar says PayScale.com's figures are incorrect and that the Bar's most recent salary survey (from 1997) shows the median salary of Alabama attorneys is between $70,000 and $90,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a breakdown of attorney salaries by type of practice.