DeKALB – City Attorney Dean Frieders seemingly was spared as City Manager Bill Nicklas laid off four high-level administrators Monday, but that might not be the case after all.
Frieders makes $19,000 a month providing legal services to the city of DeKalb. As part of Nicklas’ belt-tightening efforts to alleviate a fiscal 2019 budget shortfall, he said he plans to explore alternate options for legal services.
“I will be asking the Council to authorize me to proceed with a [request for proposals] for legal services to see what the market will offer,” Nicklas said in an email Thursday. “This is not a reflection on Mr. Frieders, but a fiscal question consistent with my approach so far.”
Public Works Director Tim Holdeman, Community Development Director Jo Ellen Charlton, Information Technology Director Marc Thorson and Assistant Finance Director Robert Miller were laid off effective March 1. Holdeman’s base salary is $129,727, according to city documents. Charlton’s and Thorson’s salaries are $127,651, and Miller’s salary is $113,400.
The city is set to pay Frieders’ law firm, Frieders Law LLC, $228,000 this year, considerably more than what the highest-paid city employees make. However, as a contractor, Frieders does not receive health or retirement benefits through the city.
Records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that Frieders requested a raise in September, increasing his fee from $17,340 to $19,000 a month. He has offered to rescind that increase in light of budget realities, according to a written statement Frieders submitted to the Daily Chronicle. The 11.5 percent increase was the first he had received since 2013, records show.
“Had I understood the true picture of the city’s finances at that time, I would not have presented that same request to the city,” Frieders wrote. “I have indicated my willingness to accept a reversal of the September 2018 fee adjustment that council provided. While my services have a value to the city far greater than the fee charged, I too am willing to do my part to support the city.”
Frieders noted that he provides his own business and health insurance for Frieders Law LLC, pays for his own legal research and covers all his own expenses. Frieders is provided with office space at the DeKalb Municipal Building under his contract, according to Nicklas.
Comparatively, a similarly populated city such as Crystal Lake, budgeted $516,195 for legal services in fiscal 2019.
“That is the nature of working as a contractor,” Frieders said. “If you compare the ‘fully loaded’ costs of city employees and make an effort to account for the long-term costs, I believe you will find the comparison to be quite favorable.”
According to city documents, Freiders requested the raise on Sept. 16 in an email to former interim City Manager Molly Talkington. He cited a growing workload, including working as the city’s tax increment finance counsel, attending all City Council meetings, never taking a sick day and cutting short a family vacation to come back to the city to respond to an emergency lawsuit as reasons for a raise.
St. Charles-based Frieders Law LLC began contracting with the city in May 2012 at $17,000 a month, according to the documents.
“In the five years since, there has not been any adjustment in the fee,” Frieders said in the September email requesting a fee increase. “As a business owner, my costs of insurance, malpractice coverage, legal research tools and all of the various other expenses I incur have increased markedly. However, while I have considered requesting an adjustment in years past, I have recognized each year that the City’s financial condition was such that I was reluctant to make a request.
“While this does have budgetary impact, the additional work that I am undertaking at this time relates to the administration of the TIF districts and is lawfully chargeable to the TIF districts as an administrative expense,” Frieders continued in the email.
The council approved the raise at $19,000 a month Sept. 24, according to city documents, with a 7-1 vote. Ward 1 Alderman David Jacobson was the only alderman to vote no.
“While I did feel that I could get to the point of supporting some additional salary based on additional work responsibilities, being that [Frieders] was going to be taking over the TIF legal services that we were paying another third party to do, I felt that his salary as the highest-paid city employee was already more than fair,” Jacobson said Friday.
Jacobson said Frieders will be “welcome to apply” for the proposal process.
The city is not Frieders’ only client. Frieders Law also contracts with the village of Pingree Grove to provide legal services. According to the documents, Frieders is making $6,800 a month for fiscal 2019, based on the consumer price index for the Chicago metropolitan area.
“The council and city manager will continue to evaluate all city expenses, and I will support those efforts wherever I can,” Frieders wrote. “My work for the city over the past several years has shown my commitment to putting the city’s needs first.”