Any county looking at multimillion-dollar budget cuts for the foreseeable future should put every reasonable savings plan on the table. But farming out work from the Hillsborough County attorney's office to private law firms would carry ramifications that go far beyond dollars and cents. Commissioners should consider those implications when they tackle the proposal later this month.
The proponent, commission Chairman Al Higginbotham, said he wants to explore outsourcing as part of a larger analysis of how to make the legal department more efficient. Higginbotham is fuzzy on where his idea is going but right that the discussion is overdue. The attorney's office has been something of a sacred cow. That is understandable to a point, given the complexity of policy issues and the litigious nature of society. But the county has no real measure of the value it is getting from its investment in the legal department. Higginbotham's workshop on Aug. 24 could lay a foundation for both greater savings and accountability.
But there also needs to be a recognition from the start that the value of in-house attorneys goes well beyond their legal advice. County attorneys are full-time public servants. Unlike those in the private sector, their interests are not conflicted by having other clients. County attorneys appreciate the obligations that Florida's strong open-government laws impose on their elected bosses and the bureaucracy — a sensitivity that helps the county avoid making poor decisions and expensive mistakes. And in-house lawyers can be a backstop of sorts when the law and politics collide.
Higginbotham said he's not looking to "pull the switch" but only to have a dialogue. On that score, Commissioner Ken Hagan has proved to be especially helpful by imploring his colleagues not to rush a decision. Hagan said he wanted recommendations for creating a "sustainable office" for the long term. His mind-set is the right one, and it should frame the course of the workshop debate. The goal of saving money cannot come at the expense of losing the office's institutional history, work product or independence. Board members have a responsibility to examine cost controls. But they also should acknowledge that the county is well-served by a strong in-house legal department.