Report backs internal legal office Keep staff of six, make few changes, consultant says

Cost called bargain

Commissioners weigh whether to hire outside lawyers

November 23, 1995|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The county is getting its legal services at bargain prices from its staff of six lawyers and ought to keep the county attorney's office open.

Wayne Rhodes, government consultant with the Institute of Governmental Service in College Park, gave the county commissioners that assessment yesterday after a four-month study.

The report, still in draft form, cost the county $750 and included a review of the attorney's office and the quality of its legal service, interviews with county bureau chiefs and comparisons with surrounding counties.

The study concluded that, with cost as a criterion, "maintaining the current approach" is the best option for the office, which has a $555,000 budget for fiscal 1996.

Mr. Rhodes recommended "no substantive changes" in the daily operation.

"It is a straightforward report," Commissioner W. Benjamin Brown said. "The issues are clear and the choices simple."

When Charles W. Thompson resigned as county attorney last spring, the commissioners requested the study and considered contracting all or some of the legal services to private attorneys.

"An internal legal office provides access to counsel and can resolve problems before they become serious," said Mr. Rhodes. "Employees utilize that counsel well and are not afraid to seek routine legal advice."

Without a county attorney's office and given the cost of outside legal fees, employees may not seek advice.

"Employees are reluctant, particularly because of the high hourly cost, to go outside for day-to-day advice," he said.

Mr. Rhodes reported that employees were generally satisfied with the quality of advice.

"The staff offered constructive criticism of the legal office," said George Lahey, county attorney.

Mr. Rhodes estimated that the county pays $59 per hour for each attorney. With overhead, the cost increases to $75 an hour. In the private sector, those costs are significantly higher, he said.

"Conservatively, the county would spend about $300,000 more annually to go outside for services and would not meet the level of services it has now," said Mr. Rhodes. "Privatizing is not a good idea."

He did recommend contracting an attorney more well-versed in a particular field when the need arises. He used a narrow zoning issue as an example of the need for an attorney outside the county's employ.

Abolishing the department would also erase the institutional memory and history, he said.

"Now managers know the counsel is familiar with county operations," he said.

The study compared Carroll's population of about 140,000 and its legal budget with those of Frederick, Washington, Harford and Charles counties.

"Basically, we found that comparisons exemplify the unique nature of each county," he said. "Every county with a population of more than 80,000 has internal legal staff. Even the smaller counties are considering internalizing."

Carroll County is most successful at recovering delinquent personal property taxes, the report said. Mr. Lahey said the office has pursued 600 tax cases this year and recovered about $559,000. When the program began two years ago, the attorney's office recovered $194,000. "I expected the numbers to drop off, but they haven't," he said.

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