Nassau's spending on outside counsel could again exceed $5M by year's end
Outsourcing by Nassau's county attorney is again on pace to cost more than $5 million this year, but the legislature's GOP leadership stands behind the practice -- citing continued savings from cutting the ranks of in-house lawyers.
The county attorney's office spent $2.7 million in contracts through June 30, the bulk of it for hiring law firms to represent Nassau in various civil cases. It budgeted $5 million in contract costs this year after spending $5.1 million in 2013.
Those totals under Republican County Executive Edward Mangano are more than double the average contract spending in the county attorney's office during the last four years of former Democratic County Executive Thomas Suozzi's term.
Legislative Democrats have criticized Mangano for the spike, which Newsday reported last month has largely rewarded law firms with close ties to Nassau GOP leaders. But Mangano defended the practice by noting that his cuts to the deputy county attorney ranks -- by 40 percent since 2009 -- means the office is running cheaper, on a four-year average, than it did under Suozzi, even with the contract spike.
Through June 30, salaries for the 95 employees now in the county attorney's office, including 65 lawyers, totaled $3.8 million. Due to numerous vacancies, the office is on pace to come in below its $8.1 million salary budget for the year.
If that happens, the $7.6 million in salaries plus the $5.4 million in contract costs that the office is on pace for would equal $13 million by year's end.
In 2009, the year Mangano defeated Suozzi, salaries for 154 employees in the county attorney's office, including 106 lawyers, totaled $11.5 million. However, the office spent only $1.1 million on outside contracts, bringing the two-category total to $12.6 million.
After Newsday's story last month, legislative Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow) said she would meet with the administration about its increased reliance on outside legal hiring. Last week, Gonsalves said she'd had the meeting and was satisfied the county attorney's office was operating effectively and efficiently.
She cited figures showing that the total of legal contracts plus in-house attorney salaries and benefits averaged about $1 million less annually from 2010-13, compared with 2006-09.
"In addition to being effective, the allocation of in-house staff and outside counsel employed by his office has saved nearly 10 percent a year when compared to the previous administration," Gonsalves said.
County Attorney Carnell Foskey, whom Mangano appointed late last year, attributed the outside contract costs so far in 2014 to "several difficult and high-profile cases that were litigated, which have increased spending for experts and other litigation evidence expenses that our office must use to effectively defend and protect the county and its taxpayers."
But Legis. Judy Jacobs (D-Woodbury), who has been a leading critic of legal contract spending under Mangano, said she still believes the county is better served by a larger in-house staff that has more specialized legal expertise.
"If you build up your own staff, you don't always automatically have to go outside to expensive law firms," Jacobs said. "You don't have to build it back up all at once, but start to build it back slowly. It's frustrating and it's upsetting that they're unwilling to bend on this."