DRACUT -- A $1.1 million payment made by the town to the firm in which Town Counsel James Hall is a partner has drawn questions from residents who were unaware that more than 90 percent of that amount went to land purchases Hall made on behalf of the town, Town Manager James Duggan said.
The alarm over the $1.1 million payment to Hall's firm was first sounded publicly by Roger Daigle, a former selectman and Finance Committee member, during a local cable-TV broadcast of "Dracut Politics," the Dracut Access Television show Daigle co-hosts twice a month.
Daigle called viewers' attention to the budget line item he spotted in the vendor-payments section of the Town of Dracut 2013 Annual Town Report, copies of which are made available to the public at spring and fall Town Meeting and at Town Hall. The line-item Daigle spoke of showed $1,104,004 was paid to Qua, Hall, Harvey & Walsh of Lowell, between July 1, 2012 and June 30, 2013.
Hall said accounting records kept by his firm indicate he received $76,912.50 from the town of Dracut for fiscal 2013 fiscal for his services as a part-time legal consultant, including his participation in Town Meeting and Board of Selectmen's meetings.
In the same 12-month period, the town also provided Hall's firm with sufficient funding to make Town Meeting- and Dracut Housing Authority-approved land purchases of the Richardson Farm property for a planned affordable-housing development, and a house lot on Champlain Street needed to complete the new Town Hall construction project.
"Every year you will see that line-item (payment to the Town Counsel's law firm) is different," Duggan said. "What we do is put money in there when we're scheduled to purchase private properties, whether it's through the Community Preservation Commission, or town. That was CPC funds that were used to purchase the Richardson Farm.
"Attorney Hall is able to draw off that account in order to do the deal," said Duggan. "There could be $300,000 to $400,000 in there at any given time, depending on what purchases are coming up."
Hall, who was appointed Dracut town counsel in 2001, said the budget line item happened to be unusually large in 2013 due to the Richardson land purchase. Because there was no breakdown of the total amount that was paid to his firm offered in the Town Report, it created some confusion, and may have led to faulty conclusions being drawn by some readers, Hall noted.
According to the Dracut Property Tax Assessor's website, Hall, acting on behalf of the town and Dracut Housing Authority, purchased the Richardson Farm in January as two separate parcels: The largest was a 17.3-acre property at 144 Greenmont Ave., owned by the Armeda Richardson Trust, for which the town paid $650,000; and smaller, 0.9-acre property at 1530 Bridge St., including an aluminum sided, 3-bedroom, one-story ranch, for which the town paid owner James Richardson $207,000.
A third land purchase by the town, which Hall also closed in January, was a small house lot at 26 Champlain St., bordering the Dracut Library parking lot, containing a 90-year-old, 2-bedroom bungalow owned by Phyllis Robertson. On Jan. 29, Robertson was paid $165,000 by the town to make way for the new Town Hall project.
The town previously purchased a neighboring house lot needed for the new Town Hall project at 10 Champlain St. in 2004.
Hall said his firm also incurred legal expenses, court filing and recording fees for the year amounting to $5,440.33.
A comparison of annual legal service fees paid to attorneys in the area shows the $76,912 Hall received in 2013 is about half the amounts that were paid to Town Counsels in several surrounding communities, including Tewksbury, Tyngsboro and Westford.
Follow John Collins on Twitter and Tout @johncolowellsun.