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City Hall wants to cut outside legal fees
Copyright 2007 The Buffalo News
City Hall is looking for ways to slash the amount of money it spends on outside lawyers.
Over the past year, Buffalo has shelled out about $700,000 for private attorneys who have helped with union-related legal disputes, including grievances, arbitrations and court fights involving a wage freeze.
This sum doesn't include hundreds of thousands of dollars the city has spent on outside lawyers to deal with the downtown casino flap and other nonlabor matters.
The city has never launched a request-for-proposals process to try to get the best rates by encouraging competition among law firms. But that's about to change, said Mayor Byron W. Brown, who urged private attorneys to "sharpen their pencils."
The mayor stressed that he's not taking shots at law firms that have represented the city in the past. Brown and Corporation Counsel Alisa A. Lukasiewicz said the various firms have been selected based on their areas of expertise. The outside attorneys that have worked for Buffalo have been "very qualified," Brown said.
"But we also want to make sure we get the best price point for the city," the mayor added.
In recent months, South Council Member Michael P. Kearns has cast a spotlight on what he considers sky-high legal bills. As chairman of the Council Claims Committee, Kearns has repeatedly raised questions about escalating costs for outside attorneys. His crusade hasn't won him any brownie points with the administration.
Lukasiewicz said one problem has been a staff shortage in her unit. The Law Department has the "brain power" but lacks "the people power" to handle some cases, she said. The new budget that takes effect July 1 will add two attorneys to the city's 16-lawyer unit, including an attorney who specializes in labor issues.
Lukasiewicz added that an increase in the number of union grievances and arbitrations have driven up the city's outside legal tab. When Human Resources Commissioner Leonard A. Matarese suggested at a recent CitiStat meeting that unions intentionally mount such challenges as a "strategy," Brown quickly jumped in to make it clear that his administration isn't pointing fingers at labor.
Brown's 2005 mayoral campaign received substantial backing from the city's largest unions.
While the city hopes a new request-for-proposals process will help lower the tab for outside attorneys, Finance Commissioner Janet Penksa says another effort could also help. Brown has asked the state control board that oversees Buffalo's finances to lift a wage freeze that has been in place since April 2004. The freeze has caused unions to launch numerous lawsuits. Penksa said if the freeze is lifted, Buffalo's legal bills will decrease.
Control board officials stated earlier this month that it appears as if the city is in strong enough financial shape to afford the costs associated with a lifting of the wage freeze.
But they noted that the same can't be said for the school district, and a control board lawyer suggested that state law does not allow the panel to lift the freeze in a piecemeal fashion. Brown said he has legal experts looking into the issue.
© 2001-2011 City of Buffalo
Photos by Angel Art LTP, compliments of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau. Additional photos by Adrian Roselli, compliments of Algonquin Studios