To the editor:
After reading an article in The Sentinel that the Mifflin County School District's preliminary budget contained a $70,000 increase due to "a change in legal services," I was concerned enough about my taxes to send an open records request to the district asking for more information on this budget item. I asked for information on why a change was made and how it was made. I also asked for copies of legal bills for the last three years. I was surprised both with that I got in response to my request and what was not in the response.
I received 931 pages of bills for legal services over the last three years. However, there was not a single document (including e-mails, letters or meeting minutes) included which related to why the district's long time local lawyers were replaced by a big Harrisburg law firm last year. I found it hard to believe that the five people who voted for the change could take such a big step and not a single email or letter was exchanged on the topic. It was explained to me that since no documents were produced, they must not exist. I thought to myself, "Well, the answer must be in the bills then."
So I separated page upon page of bills until I had all of the prior law firm bills and the new Harrisburg law firms bills together, then I broke out my trusty calculator and crunched some numbers, as the saying goes. The hours put in by both firms were very similar, so that wasn't the answer. According to my calculations, during the last 12 months the local firm were the lawyers for the district, they billed about $69,000 for the work they did. The local law firm charged $100 an hour for most matters, but charged only $50 an hour for some things they did. When I did the calculations using the Harrisburg law firms' bills, I got a case of sticker shock. The Harrisburg law firm charged over $127,000 during the first 11 months it did work for the district, and charged $200 an hour for everything it did. I was flabbergasted, not just at the amount of money leaving town, but also, how anyone could conclude such a change in services was fiscally responsible. Never, in all my years in business, had I ever decided to pay a new service provider two to four times more than I was already paying my current service provider. It simply makes no sense.
At the end of the day, the documents that I had hoped would answer my questions about the budget only led to another question: How on earth, at a time when the wages of district employees are being cut, does it make fiscal sense to pay more money per hour to lawyers from out of the county, especially when none of that money will come back to the district in taxes, but will go to Harrisburg and Dauphin County instead?