Lehigh County's executive will have access to additional, high-powered legal advice in two upcoming contract negotiations, even though county commissioners were initially leery about the potential cost.

After some soul searching and a promise from county executive Matt Croslis, the commissioners voted 8-1 Wednesday night to allow Croslis to use the Philadelphia law firm of Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney in contract talks with the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers union -- if he sees fit.

Croslis stressed having the ability to use Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney does not mean a shift away from the firm that currently negotiates for the county, Flamm Boroff & Bacine of Allentown. "We're not changing horses," he said.

The Buchanan firm is one of the best in the country at labor negotiations, he said, "and they would give the board an option [and] a way to compare" what Flamm Boroff & Bacine is providing.

Both unions' three-year contracts with the county come to an end on Dec. 31, and preliminary talks between the county and the unions are set to begin in a few weeks.

The SEIU represents about 335 case workers in the human services department and the UFCW about 665 workers at Cedarbrook, the county nursing home, said Frank Kane, the county executive's chief of staff.

Commissioner Michael Schware was enthusiastic about Crolis' idea. "Personnel costs are the biggest expense and have the biggest impact on the county budget," he said.

Having the Buchanan firm under contract "gives the executive the opportunity and the tools" to negotiate a contract that's fair to the workers and the county, he added.

But Schware's fellow commissioners had several reservations, including:
-- The $350 hourly rate charged by Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney, which is double that of Flamm Boroff & Bacine.

-- The length of the contract, which runs through Aug. 31, 2014.

-- The high spending cap, which is $100,000.

-- And the fact that the contract was not subject to the Request for Proposal procedure the commissioners require of county department heads who want to spend tax dollars.

Because the commissioners could not unilaterally alter the contract with Buchanan, Ingersoll & Rooney, they settled for a promise from Croslis to renegotiate the terms with the Philadelphia law firm more to the commissioners' liking.

Croslis pledged that if he could not, he would choose not to use the firm's services.

Commissioners chairwoman Lisa Scheller said she was satisfied with what she humorously referred to as "a faith-based commitment" from Crolis.

All but one of the commissioners who had raised objections followed her lead.

Scott Ott set aside his misgivings because he said he was "hesitant to micromanage."

Percy Dougherty, who originally said he was "more comfortable with a more open process," did the same, because he "welcomed more horses in the stable."

Even David S. Jones Sr., who at first said he "was not hearing a clear enough justification" for the contract, voted yes, making a face and speaking in a strangulated voice as he did so.

Commissioner Daniel McCarthy remained unmoved, however. He said he was sure there were "several competent Lehigh Valley labor attorneys" who could provide added expertise in negotiations "before we need to be going to Philadelphia for lawyers at $350 an hour."

Bringing in a second set of negotiators, even on a limited basis, could be seen as a "crack in the wall" by the other side, he noted.

And spending another $50,000 to $100,000, when Flamm Boroff & Bacine are doing more than satisfactory work at a reasonable price, "is ill-timed ... and not the most effective way of spending our money," McCarthy stated.