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Law firm in line for extension

Profile image for By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer
By Lowell Brown / Staff Writer

Denton Mayor Mark Burroughs' law firm will collect the city's delinquent property taxes for at least another year. Mark Burroughs

City Council members informally agreed during a work session Tuesday to extend the city's tax collection contract with Sawko & Burroughs through June 2012. The three-year contract expires June 30 but has two optional one-year extensions.

A vote is expected at an upcoming meeting.

Burroughs left the room during the discussion and filed a conflict-of-interest disclosure. He declined to comment after the meeting.

Council members said Sawko & Burroughs has performed well under the contract, and they saw no reason to consider other firms. Sawko & Burroughs has held the city's tax contract for six years and outscored three other firms when the city last sought bids in 2008.

Council members rejected a proposal Tuesday from Greg Sawko, Burroughs' law partner, to let the contract perpetually renew each month unless one of the parties asked to end it. During a brief address to the council, Sawko said his proposal would ensure that his firm is constantly "under the gun" to perform well. Most of the firm's clients have already gone to month-to-month renewals, he said.

Bryan Langley, the city's chief financial officer, said Sawko's proposal would be outside the city's normal practice of having contracts with set expiration dates. The existing tax contract already allows the city to withdraw with 30 days' notice if there's a problem with the firm's work, Langley said.

Council member Chris Watts challenged Sawko over a remark - made during a private chat at a recent council breakfast - that Sawko was seeking the month-to-month option in part to take politics out of the issue. Watts joined then-council member Joe Mulroy in voting against the existing contract when the council approved it, 4-2, in November 2008. IN OTHER ACTION

Also Tuesday, the Denton City Council:• Voted 6-1 to approve a controversial rezoning request for nearly7 acres at the northeast corner of Glenwood Lane and East University Drive, where an office development is planned. The council added multiple conditions meant to address neighborhood concerns over incompatible development. Dalton Gregory opposed the rezoning.• Approved an agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation to jointly fund more than $1.96 million in fiber optic communication lines for the city's traffic signals. The project will allow the city to synchronize traffic signals at major intersections from a central location and reduce idling times, officials said. The state is funding most of the project through revenue from the State Highway 121 toll agreement.• Approved spending $2.12 million to buy vehicles and heavy equipment for various city utility departments. • Approved a $320,950 contract with Blue Ridge-based Redden Concrete Inc. to build a neighborhood park in the Preserve at Pecan Creek subdivision on Sunray Drive and renovate Owsley Park on Stella Street. The park at the Preserve at Pecan Creek will be named Spc. Ernest W. Dallas Jr. Veterans Memorial Park in honor of Dallas, a Denton resident who died near Baghdad in 2005 at age 21. The city is funding the parks through developer fees.• Approved a $150,648 contract with Denton-based Floyd Smith Concrete Inc. for drainage improvements along West Prairie Street.• Appointed Jim Engelbrecht, Pete Kamp and Chris Watts to the council's newly created airport subcommittee. -Lowell Brown

"When you and I talked at the breakfast, part of your rationale for the 30-day, month-to-month [renewal] was the politicization, potentially, of this contract," Watts said as Sawko stood at the speaker's podium. "I certainly wouldn't support it in that regard because we don't do it on any other contracts."

Sawko said he had been talking casually when he made the remark.

"The better rationale is that it [month-to-month renewal] is based on performance, that it's more likely to come before you because of performance, not because of politics," Sawko said. "That's really the rationale."

The contract was a major issue in the 2008 mayoral race, when Burroughs defeated incumbent Perry McNeill. Critics raised various concerns, including that it would look bad for a mayor to sue residents over unpaid taxes.

Watts questioned whether the firm had lived up to a commitment to create a "firewall" between Burroughs and the day-to-day work required under the contract.

Sawko said Burroughs generally isn't involved in lawsuits the firm files solely on the city's behalf. But Burroughs is involved in "consolidated" tax lawsuits filed for the city and other clients, such as the Denton school district, Sawko said.

"He's not totally excluded out" of city lawsuits, Sawko said.

Burroughs repeatedly denied during the 2008 campaign that the contract was a conflict of interest because his income comes from fees on taxpayers, not directly from the city. He later filed affidavits disclosing that his interest in the firm met the conflict-of-interest threshold in the Texas Local Government Code.

The state property tax code allows a city or other taxing body to add a fee to delinquent accounts to defray the cost of hiring a lawyer to collect them. Under the Denton contract, Sawko & Burroughs receives 20 percent of the total tax, penalty and interest collected - the maximum allowed under state law.

The contract requires collections of at least 60 percent of current-year delinquencies and 30 percent of past-due amounts from prior years. A review by city staff members showed the firm had met the requirements, Langley said. Current- and prior-year collections equaled 64 percent and 44 percent, respectively, in the most recent year, he said.

LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is .