IT'S NO SURPRISE THAT a consultant's review of the Carroll County attorney's office concluded that privatizing its operations would be a major financial mistake. The Institute of Governmental Services, a University of Maryland-affiliated research group, said the office should continue to function as it has and recommended no "substantive" changes in its daily operations.
When then-candidate and now-commissioner W. Benjamin Brown suggested the county privatize its legal operations, there were immediate predictions that the county would end up spending considerably more for legal advice if it closed down its six-lawyer office and hired private attorneys to handle the county's legal work. The IGS study backed up those contentions. By privatizing, the county would add another $300,000 to the $550,000 it currently spends, according to the IGS analysis.
Wayne Rhodes, the author of the IGS study, estimates that Carroll County pays about $59 a hour for each county lawyer on its payroll, plus $16 in overhead -- or $75 an hour -- for legal advice. By private practice standards, these are bargain-basement expenses, since most large Maryland firms bill that much for work done by paralegals. While the county could negotiate a favorable rate with an outside firm, it would be next to impossible to obtain the services at that cost.
Mr. Rhodes pointed out that cost should not be the only consideration. Having an in-house legal staff means that county employees can readily obtain routine legal advice, preventing small problems from escalating into serious ones. Mr. Rhodes speculated that with the high hourly cost of consulting private attorneys, employees have been reluctant "to go outside for day-to-day advice."
The report raised one other important consideration. Having an in-house legal staff means the county has an institutional memory. Having staff members who are familiar with recurring issues means that taxpayers aren't paying to have others learn on the job.
In certain instances, particularly in highly specialized legal questions, the county should resort to outside lawyers. However, as a practice, privatizing Carroll's legal services doesn't make a great deal of sense from a financial or sound governance perspective.