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June 5, 2009

 

Committee examines county law department

By CATHERINE WILDE
Staff Reporter
cwilde@cortlandstandard.net

A subcommittee formed to study the possibility of creating a county law office met for the first time Wednesday and decided to first determine if such an operation would be cheaper than the current cost of legal services.
The Cortland County Law Office Advisory Committee hopes to gather the information by the time it reconvenes after Thursday’s Personnel Committee meeting.
By that meeting, subcommittee Chairman Larry Cornell (R-Marathon and Lapeer) said he hopes to have feedback from County Administrator Scott Schrader about the actual cost of a county attorney’s office so the committee can explore cost saving measures.
“We hope to have a cost differential of going to a full-time county attorney versus how we are running now,” Cornell said after Thursday’s meeting.
Committee members all agreed they do not want to change the current set-up of the office without valid justification that such a move would result in cost savings to the county and improve the operations in the office.
Changes the committee is exploring include possibly making the county attorney a full-time position and four-year position instead of the part-time position that now runs concurrently with the two-year term of the Legislature. In addition, the committee is examining the benefits of bringing the Department of Social Services attorneys under the jurisdiction of the county attorney instead of under the Social Services commissioner.
“I am open to changing if it will save money ... but not just for the sake of changing,” committee member Sandy Price (D-Harford and Virgil) said.
Committee members other than Cornell and Price are Gene Waldbauer (R-Cortlandville), John Troy (D-1st Ward), Tom Hartnett (D-4th Ward) and Legislature Clerk Jeremy Boylan.
The committee was formed May 14 at the direction of Legislature Chairman John Daniels (D-Cortlandville) since the county is considering changing the structure of the County Attorney’s Office.
County Attorney Ed Purser works 17.5 hours a week. The position carries an annual salary of $53,666.
Restructuring the office was a recommendation of Fran Casullo, of the Cortland law firm Pomeroy, Armstrong, Casullo & Monty. The county hired Casullo in February 2008 to study the County Attorney’s Office and the possibilities of creating a law department. The study also examined bringing Department of Social Services attorneys under the jurisdiction of the county attorney.
In making any recommendations, the committee will consider Casullo’s study, the recommendations of Purser, Public Defender Keith Dayton and Social Services Commissioner Kristen Monroe.
As of yet the committee does not see the benefit of bringing the Department of Social Services attorneys into the fold of the law office.
“It is working well the way it is now, why fix something that is not broke,” Cornell said.
Cornell will invite Monroe to speak at an upcoming meeting since she has in the past stated her opposition to moving attorneys in her office into a county law office.
The committee is also going to poll county legislators on their feelings about how Purser was appointed. Purser was appointed by way of a recommendation made by a bipartisan panel, which conducted interviews of potential candidates in an attempt to make a purely merit-based recommendation.
Hartnett said he thinks that appointment method was successful and praised Purser’s performance so far.
“We are on the right track with the selection committee for the attorney, we need to give the process a chance,” Hartnett said.
But he added that the committee must explore how the attorney could be made a full-time position.
Purser said although he thinks the position should be more than a part-time job, it may be hard to draw an attorney away from a private practice to a full-time job for what would only be a two-year term.
“The question is how many hours are required for the position,” Purser said.
With regards to changing the length of the term of the office, Purser pointed to Tioga County, whose full-time county attorney has a three-year term that is not concurrent with the term of the county legislature.
Of the 26 counties interviewed by Casullo, Tioga was the only exception to that rule.
Purser will explore how Tioga County has handled that to see if Cortland County could possibly do something similar.
Cornell hopes the committee will have a recommendation to pass on to the Personnel Committee by the July 9 meeting so the Legislature can vote on it at the July 23 session.
“We are looking at it and researching it,” Cornell said. “If we don’t make changes, it is because it is best for the county.”

 

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