The legal bill for Pembroke Pines to take a stand against a proposed federal detention center in neighboring Southwest Ranches is $122,000 since September, and growing.
At least three different law firms are working on the citys behalf to oppose the planned U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement holding facility, and collectively their attorneys have logged dozens of hours in meetings, performing legal research, and reviewing and preparing documents.
But attorneys fees, at a rate of $185 to $225 per hour, are just a fraction of the citys potential liabilities.
Pembroke Pines could be on the hook for much more potentially millions if the city does not prevail in a federal lawsuit filed by Corrections Corporation of America, the private prison contractor bidding to bring the federal detention center to Southwest Ranches.
CCA filed the lawsuit in March, one day after Pembroke Pines commissioners voted to cancel a contract to provide fire-rescue, emergency medical, water and sewer services to the facility, which would be one of the nations largest with at least 1,500 beds and 500,000-square-feet of space.
That same night the commission also voted to hire Orlando attorney Usher L. Brown to file a lawsuit against CCA in state court seeking a declaratory judgment, or a judges ruling, that would resolve the question of whether Pembroke Pines is legally required to provide water and sewer service to the proposed detention center.
But CCA beat the city to the punch. The next morning, the company filed a lawsuit against Pembroke Pines in federal court preempting the citys lawsuit, and rendering it moot until the outcome of the federal case.
CCAs lawsuit asks a judge to order Pembroke Pines to cease attempts to block the proposed detention center, and to provide water and sewer service to the facility.
The lawsuit also asks that Pembroke Pines pay CCA for any profits the company loses as a result of the citys efforts to block the facility from being built.
Steve Owen, a CCA spokesman, said the company was forced into litigation after Pembroke Pines commissioners voted to file a lawsuit first.
We had no plans to sue Pembroke Pines, he said, and we reluctantly filed the litigation only after Pembroke Pines voted to sue CCA. ... It was a decision that they made as opposed to hiring a mediator or a negotiator. They started down this path. That was their decision.
ICE has yet to announce the selection of Southwest Ranches as the site, but agency officials have indicated in meetings with residents and correspondence with local officials that they are looking closely at the Broward municipality as their preferred option.
The detention center would be located on about 24 acres owned by CCA in Southwest Ranches but surrounded almost entirely by Pembroke Pines.
All five of Pembroke Pines commissioners have publicly expressed their opposition to the facilitys location, but their votes related to the detention center have not always been unanimous.
They voted together to file the lawsuit against CCA in March, and to send a letter to President Barack Obama in January asking him to intervene in the selection of a site. The White House has yet to reply.
But the commissions vote was split 3-2 on the question of cancelling the water and sewer service contract in March.
Pines Mayor Frank Ortis said the specter of runaway legal costs deterred him from voting with the majority.
I knew there would be numerous lawsuits, said Ortis. Who knows how much its going to cost. It could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, eventually.
So far, Pembroke Pines has paid legal fees to city attorney Sam Goren, who is contracted at a rate of $185 per hour; and two independent attorneys representing the city in separate lawsuits stemming from the proposed detention center: Brown, who provided legal opinions and filed a lawsuit against CCA in state court on the citys behalf; and E. Bruce Johnson of Fort Lauderdale, the lead attorney defending Pembroke Pines against CCAs federal lawsuit.
Brown bills at a rate of $225 per hour, and the city has paid his firm a total of $57,709 since February, including $34,251.50 in fees and $1,512.65 in costs to file the state lawsuit.
Its unknown how much Johnson charges. Goren said Johnsons legal fees are initially payable by Pembroke Pines, up to the city reaching a cap of about $100,000 for all claims.
After the city reaches that cap, Johnsons fees were to be paid by the citys insurance carrier, ACE North American Professional Risk Claims.
But on May 8, ACE sent the city a letter saying coverage does not apply to any liability arising out of the complete or partial failure to adequately supply gas, oil, water, electricity, steam or sewerage service.
Goren said Pembroke Pines officials have not yet decided whether to challenge the insurers decision and are still reviewing their next step.
Gorens work on the detention center issue dates back to June 2011, when he billed the city for work on the contract to provide fire, emergency medical, water and sewer service to Southwest Ranches and the proposed facility. According to the contract, Southwest Ranches would pay Pembroke Pines $2.5 million annually to provide those services.
That same month, Pembroke Pines commissioners unanimously approved the contract.
But by August, as word spread of the potential federal detention center, residents began to hold street protests and attend commission meetings to demand the facility be located elsewhere.
In response, Pines commissioners voted in December to hire an independent attorney Brown
to provide a second opinion about the citys legal requirement to provide water and sewer service to the proposed detention center.
Commissioners paid for the second opinion despite the fact that Goren already had issued two memorandums saying the city risked significant legal liabilities if commissioners were to cancel water and sewer service to the facility.
To do so, Goren wrote, will subject the city to an assertion of liability on claims of breach of contract, damages based on reliance, and constitutional equal protection claims.
Whats more, Goren noted, the CCA-owned property has been approved for development as a prison since 2005, and the city already provides utilities to multiple clients in the immediate vicinity, including the Broward Correctional Institute, a state prison for women; the countys Southwest Regional Landfill; and Bergeron Industrial Park.
Still, Brown contradicted Gorens opinion, and suggested the city could cancel the services without suffering legal consequences. He also suggested Pembroke Pines file the lawsuit against CCA seeking declaratory judgment.
With a looming municipal election in January, the detention center and the attorneys contrasting legal opinions became a hot button issue for candidates.
Commissioner Iris Siple hammered at the issue nearly every meeting, calling the contract deceptive even though she voted to approve it in June. She won re-election easily.
But Commissioner Jack McCluskey, who had expressed doubts that cancelling the citys contracts with Southwest Ranches would halt the federal detention center, was defeated at the polls.
Voters replaced McCluskey with Jay Schwartz, who later voted with the commission majority to cancel the fire-rescue, emergency medical, water and sewer service contract.
Schwartz said last week that he has residents support, even though the proposed detention center is outside his electoral district.
They fully embrace the actions that Im taking, he said. My position is: Lets find out what our legal rights are.
Commissioner Angelo Castillo, who also voted to cancel the contract, said the resulting lawsuits are the price of doing the governments business.
The cost of doing the business of government cant be an excuse for government not to do its job, he said. We are doing the job were supposed to do.
Vice Mayor Carl Shechter was the only elected official to vote with the mayor against cancelling the contract.
Siple said she stands firm in her opposition to the detention center. She said the facilitys ill effects would far outweigh the legal cost of opposing it.
No one wants to be frivolous or careless with money, she said, but there has to be some value put on quality of life and protecting families and homes. Thats priceless.