CINCINNATI – Tom Gabelman is not officially on the payroll, but he’s one of Hamilton County’s most expensive workers.
In recent years, commissioners have paid more than they had planned to the private, Cincinnati attorney and the two different law firms he worked for, even as they griped about county departments going over budget.
Hamilton County taxpayers often spend more in a year paying for work involving Gabelman than many of the county’s top leaders, including the administrator, prosecutor or sheriff.
All told, during the last five years, two of the law firms Gabelman worked for made nearly $2.27 million from the county for their dealings at The Banks. County documents reveal he has worked the most on the project.
It’s an expense commissioners say has paid off. Gabelman, they say, helped to put a Marriott hotel on the riverfront, landed a deal for General Electric Co. to relocate its global headquarters at The Banks and is fresh off negotiating a $10 million state-funded grant to build new parking garages in the area.
Commissioners don’t put the contract out to bid and argue Gabelman, who has been working on the riverfront project since it started 19 years ago, is the best-equipped lawyer in town to handle those deals.
“Tom Gabelman has been involved in The Banks project from the very beginning,” Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel said of the county’s contract. “With the amount of money he’s been able to raise for us, his services have paid off for the county.”
In a new contract signed last month, commissioners agreed to pay as much as $575,000 to Gabelman and his firm for counsel on the riverfront this year. Last year, they had agreed to pay $350,000.
Commissioners have spent more than budgeted on the contracts in recent years. Gabelman worked for Cincinnati-based law firm Voyrs Sater Seymour and Pease until December 2012, when he began working for Frost Brown Todd. Frost Brown Todd also provides legal services for WCPO and its parent company, the E.W. Scripps Company.
Monzel said an uptick in new projects at The Banks has driven up attorney fees in recent years.
“I see this as the amount of work has increased, in regards to building out The Banks project,” Monzel said. “(The new contract) is not a raise, but increased work.”
Commissioners, for example, planned to spend $350,000 in 2014 for Frost Brown Todd’s legal work on The Banks but ended up writing checks for more than double that: $727,604.
That was a busy year for Gabelman and his law firm, which worked to land the deal with GE – including a large state incentive package for the company – in just four months. Gabelman said he and a staff of three others logged long days, nights and weekends to finalize the terms.
“It was phenomenal to move that quickly,” Gabelman said in an interview with WCPO Insider.
Gabelman and his firm are typically involved in every step of negotiations required to lure major development projects to the riverfront, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune said. Gabelman provides the county with monthly reports, stops in to update the commission on The Banks’ progress – he last visited in January – and works to find state or federal funding for projects to save local taxpayers money.
In 2014, for example, Gabelman renegotiated new lease terms between the county and the Bengals. Under the deal, the Bengals agreed to wave height restrictions on new buildings coming to The Banks – a move that allowed GE to locate its global headquarters there.
Local leaders and taxpayers, Gabelman said, should consider how much they're getting back from paying his firm and others to work out those deals.
“I look at this way: What’s the return on investment?” Gabelman said of his attorney fees.
And the whole thing might not have happened without Gabelman, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune said.
“Because of (Gabelman’s) involvement, from inception to face (of The Banks), all of that historical knowledge is critical in arming our counsel, our side, every time we come to the table,” Portune said.
Gabelman also offers the county a big discount on his services. He’s charged the county roughly the same amount – $250 an hour – for nearly a decade.
That’s far less than the $450-an-hour he bills other clients. It’s also less than the “blended rate” $325 per hour his firm charges Butler County taxpayers for his work on the Liberty Center, a new shopping, retail and dining project in Liberty Township.
“The rate has not increased since 2006, yet certainly the cost of legal services have continued to rise over the last 10 years,” Gabelman said. “From (Frost Brown Todd’s) perspective, this is kind of our service to the community to be able to make that happen and be involved in a transformative project for our region.”
Still, the county should stick close to its budget for the project, said State Rep. Denise Driehaus, a Democrat who is running for a seat on the commission this fall.
“I do think the activity at The Banks ebbs and flows,” Driehaus said. “The other county offices are expected to live within a budget; I think the commission should also live within their budget.”
But Hamilton County Commissioner Dennis Deters said comparing county office budgets to payouts for a private contractor are like “comparing apples to oranges.”
“The county doesn’t have a dedicated economic development director; often times we’re filling a government void – in this case it’s a law firm,” Deters said.
Local governments sometimes create positions for major development projects. Cincinnati City Council, for example, hired John Deatrick to manage the streetcar project and pay him nearly $187,775, not including benefits, every year.
That’s a move commissioners might at least consider for The Banks project, said Tim Mara, a Cincinnati attorney and local tax watchdog.
"Tom Gabelman is a fine attorney, but the large sums paid to him and his law firms over a period of several years raises the question: Could the legal work have been done as well and at considerably less cost by hiring him or another attorney as a full-time county employee?” Mara said in an email.
But Deters argues Gabelman’s experience with The Banks is invaluable.
“Their leadership and advice has led to what you’re seeing down there,” Deters said of Frost Brown Todd’s work on The Banks. “It’s gone from a mud pit to an asset. … For a project this important and this specific, hiring a private sector consultant is probably a better choice.”