Carroll Can't Afford This Savings

March 08, 1995

Carroll's commissioners are using the departure of long-time County Attorney Charles "Chuck" Thompson Jr. as an opportunity to review the handling of the county's legal work. Periodic assessment of government operations is commendable, but a wholesale transfer of county legal work to private attorneys will likely increase, rather than reduce, the county's cost.

Carroll paid about $492,000 during the last fiscal year for the county attorney's office. This year's budget is $519,000. For these sums, the county is served by six lawyers and a seven-person support staff. They handle virtually all of the county's legal matters from contracts to zoning. In addition, about $10,000 was spent on outside counsel.

If the county were to farm out much of its legal work, costs would balloon. The math is simple.

The best estimates are that the county's lawyers accumulated about 6,000 billable hours last year. If the county were to contract this work, legal firms would likely bill at an hourly rate of about $100. (That's the rate the city of Westminster pays for its general outside counsel.) Thus, for less coordinated legal representation, the county might spend at least $600,000. As they say in the long-distance telephone commercials, some savings.

There is another fundamental problem with the broad use of outside attorneys. Since much of the business of Carroll County government involves writing, interpreting and enforcing laws, it makes sense to have full-time lawyers readily available for advice and to anticipate problems.

If the county were to rely on private lawyers, officials might be reluctant to call for advice due to the cost. (Lawyers count telephone calls in their billable hours.) Over time, the Carroll County government might find itself having to clean up problems that could have been prevented had an in-house lawyer been consulted.

There is nothing wrong with evaluating Carroll's legal operation. But if the evaluation is a thinly disguised effort to subcontract large blocks of work to outside lawyers, whose interest is being served?

Any objective analysis will conclude that this "reform" is not in the public's interest. The real beneficiaries will be members of the local bar, who will be able to rack up large bills at the expense of taxpayers.

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