It’s costing the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees to fire 21 public works employees involved in a notorious city investigation last year.

The city of Hamilton spent $499,898 on legal costs to handle 188 grievances in the public works department in 2013. A large amount of that half a million has gone into hiring outside lawyers for dozens of hearing dates to dismiss the fired roads employees.

Lora Fontana, director of employee and labour relations, didn’t know exactly how much the cases have cost the city in legal fees.

But “it’s a significant portion” of that half a million, she said.

“That’s a huge arbitration with lots of preparation, so despite the fact that ther are only 29 grievances, it’s a lot of litigation involved,” she said. “The issue itself is quite significant.”

Twenty-nine public works employees were fired and two were suspended after a late 2012 investigation revealed evidence of misconduct that included theft of time and city gravel. The number later dropped to 21.

The city has arbitration dates scheduled to the end of the year, Fontana said.

“We’re likely going to have dates into the first quarter of next year.”

For all departments combined, the city spent $650,654 in legal costs last year on union grievances, and factoring in other arbitration and mediation costs, $774,581 overall. Public works accounted for 73 per cent of that, with $562,591 spent overall.

Community and emergency services cost $175,356, followed by the fire department with $86,546.

Fire department grievances increased from 35 to 85 last year – the only department to see any noticeable increase – but that was about 65 firefighters grieving the same issue, Fontana said.

Fontana presented the numbers during an annual presentation to the general issues committee on Wednesday. Overall, grievances have been steadily decreasing since 2007, with 449 in total last year.

Councillors were pleased.

“That’s good work,” said Coun. Scott Duvall of Ward 7, who is a former local steel union president.

The city dealt with 10 harassment and discrimination cases last year. One recent such case was a high-profile Ontario Human Rights Tribunal challenge involving a female HSR employee who was sexually harassed by a supervisor.

A city employee fired in connection with $1 million in missing money also grieved his dismissal last year. Hamilton police are investigating but still haven't laid charges.