Macon may see more cuts at City Hall

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert and City Council President Miriam Paris on Monday said they are willing to explore the idea of outsourcing some or all of the city attorney’s office.

Four council members have sponsored a resolution calling on Reichert’s administration to solicit bids from private attorneys interested in representing the city.

The resolution was blocked from official consideration when it first surfaced two weeks ago. But Councilman Rick Hutto, one of the sponsors, on Monday was allowed to present to the council’s agenda-setting committee data he had gathered on legal operations in other Georgia cities.

Though no vote was taken, the end result was a suggestion that Paris and Reichert put together a committee to study the matter. Both are open to further study of privatization, but they also cast doubt that such a shift is ultimately in the city’s best interest.

Reichert, an attorney, said he is partial to the idea of maintaining in-house counsel. There can be a number of hidden costs to seeking outside help, he said.

“I think we need to be very careful and look before we leap,” he said. But Reichert said he is open to making changes that will make the attorney’s office more responsive and efficient.

Paris said the potential to discover cost savings makes outsourcing a move that “is worth looking into.” But she too noted the value of in-house attorneys to a 15-member council that meets several times weekly, raises numerous legal questions and often asks for legislation to be drafted.

Macon’s governmental structure is larger than and unlike most others in the state, she said, which will make assessment difficult.

“If we’re going to outsource, it’s going to have to be comparing apples to apples,” she said.

Macon is planning to spend $755,918 on the city attorney’s office next year, up about $2,000 from what was budgeted this year.

The vast majority of those costs are related to personnel — salaries and benefits for the city attorney, four assistant city attorneys, two legal secretaries, a legal assistant, risk manager and risk management assistant.

But the budgeted expense is misleading, some officials have said, because risk management is not commonly a legal function.

The two associated positions were moved to the city attorney’s office several years ago.

If pay and benefits for those jobs, plus one of the assistant attorneys who serves primarily as a court-ordered compliance officer, is removed, the office budget drops to $568,815, City Attorney Pope Langstaff said.

That puts Macon more in line with cities such as Savannah, which budgeted $533,931 for legal work in fiscal 2009 plus nearly $430,000 for a separate risk management department.

But Hutto said there are trends developing in other cities — such as Warner Robins — to privatize legal functions, and many have only one or two attorneys in-house. For that reason, he said, Macon at least ought to look at what money might be saved by outsourcing.

“It’s clear that our city attorney’s office is costing us more than many others,” he said. Also sponsoring the resolution are council members Elaine Lucas, Lonnie Miley and Erick Erickson. They said all options need to be looked at.

“In these tough times that we’re entering, we’ve got to put a new face on city government or we’re not going to survive,” Lucas said.

Not everyone is so sure getting rid of or downsizing the attorney’s office is the answer.

“It’s going to take a lot of persuasion for me to think that outsourcing is a better option than what we have here,” Councilman Larry Schlesinger said.

To contact writer Matt Barnwell, call 744-4251.