Outside legal representation costs South Carolina school districts plenty - $22 million since 2011, according to a Sunday article by reporter Brenda Rindge.
That Post and Courier story looked at the expense to 81 school districts across the state, focusing on local districts and the costs of outsourcing legal services. (Three districts outside the tri-county area didn't respond to requests for information via the Freedom of Information Act.)
While the report didn't address the question of how those lawyers are hired, it suggested that they are chosen based on their expertise and familiarity with school issues.
Maybe there's a lesson in the debate over legal fees by the Charleston County Aviation Authority. Most of the recent discussion has centered around what the authority pays attorney Arnold Goodstein.
But Authority board member Tommy Hartnett recalls that the panel got a prime example of the value of competition last year when it received bids for the legal work on bonds to pay for the $170 million renovation of the terminal.
Mr. Hartnett says that there was some resistance on the board to going the competitive route, rather than strictly sticking with the firm that had long performed that role. But the authority saved about $90,000 by seeking bids.
Indeed, the winning bid was about half that of the competition.
It was a good example of the value of competition in general, and of its application in the public procurement process. Public bodies, elected or appointed, that spend public money have a responsibility to seek the best value for the taxpayers.
"It's the way to go," Mr. Hartnett says of the competitive process.
Mr. Hartnett has broad experience in public budgeting as a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the state Legislature.
Indeed, competitive bids can be required under the law for agencies that fall under the state procurement code.
That law, however, doesn't always apply, as in the case of the Aviation Authority. Even so, the authority is supposed to follow the guidelines of its own procurement code, which requires competitive bids, according to a report prepared for the authority by attorney Amy Jenkins.
The authority, she noted, always has the option of changing its code, though she pointed out that might be "a political challenge."
The debate was settled for the present year with Mr. Goodstein getting a 6.5 percent raise, bringing his pay to about $250,000 a year.
But as the authority enters the budget process this month, it will consider how legal representation should be obtained next year.
As Mr. Hartnett observes, there already is a good example for competition in the savings for bond work.
Ninety-thousand dollars here, ninety thousand dollars there - it all adds up.
It should get the attention of every public body outsourcing for professional services - from school districts to counties, cities and towns to public service districts and state boards and commissions.
There's a value to institutional memory and expertise, but that value should be regularly weighed against cost savings. And you don't know how much might be saved until you actually go to the marketplace for an answer.
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