Government & Politics

Kansas City’s legal fees skyrocket for KCI bid process

Kansas City’s legal expenses are piling up as the city seeks proposals for a new terminal at Kansas City International Airport.

Four weeks ago, the Kansas City Council approved $475,000 for two outside law firms to advise on the best way to seek qualified firms to do the job. The lawyers have already burned through that money, city officials said Thursday.

So on Thursday, the council introduced an ordinance to spend another $475,000 from the airport account, to try to get them through the solicitation process, which has an Aug. 10 deadline. The airport fund uses airport revenue, not general taxpayer dollars.

The two law firms are Kansas City-based Husch Blackwell and Washington, D.C.-based Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.

City Attorney Cecilia Abbott said she had not seen a bill yet but has been apprised that the legal expenses have reached the $475,000 limit. She said both firms gave the city a discount from their going rate, but each firm had about four attorneys working long hours on this issue over the past month.

One attorney at the Washington firm reportedly charged more than $1,000 per hour, and the top rate for Husch Blackwell was slightly more than $500 per hour.

The council is expected to debate the measure to spend an additional $475,000 in legal fees at a meeting next week, but the exact hearing date has not yet been scheduled. Council members Jolie Justus and Kevin McManus, both lawyers, said Thursday that they believe the outside counselors have provided excellent advice. But they said they would also like to see some controls put on the legal fee spending going forward.

Abbott said a decision on the additional legal expense can wait until later this month because the lawyers are at a logical stopping point in their city work, for the moment.

The city’s solicitation process has been rocky and has required several lengthy closed-door meetings involving the City Council and a room full of attorneys. It also involved lawyers working long hours over the Memorial Day holiday weekend and in subsequent weeks.

City Council members have said they believe they are getting very good legal advice that has improved the city’s process to find the best engineering firm and financing approach to modernize the airport.

In early May, Mayor Sly James and City Manager Troy Schulte announced their support for an exclusive deal with Kansas City-based Burns & McDonnell to design, build and privately finance a new terminal.

They said they wanted the council to approve a memorandum of understanding with Burns & McDonnell, and the city’s own lawyers began working on that agreement. The agreement was supposed to guide the city as it prepared to put the airport plan to a public vote in November.

City Council members said they wanted outside counsel to help with the drafting of the memorandum of understanding. On May 18, the council approved the $475,000 in legal fees. They said at the time that they wanted outside lawyers with expertise in these types of complicated solicitations to advise them on the best, fairest process.

They had hoped that would be enough money for at least several months’ worth of work. That turned out not to be the case.

The outside counsel made a number of key recommendations, which led the city to open the solicitation up to other firms with airport expertise, and later to extend the deadline for those submissions.

This week, the city finalized its request for qualifications, now due July 27. The second part of the solicitation, dealing with financing proposals, is due Aug. 10.

In what some believe is an excessively compressed timeframe, the council then hopes to adopt ballot language by Aug. 24, in preparation for a public election on the airport project in November.

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley