Runaway Legal Settlements Threaten City’s Budget

LA WATCHDOG

LA WATCHDOG--The City is looking at an $82 million year end deficit according the Second Financial Status Report prepared by the City Administrative Officer.  This gap does not include the possibility of lower revenues from the utility users’ tax, the sales tax, parking fines, and the 8% Transfer Tax from our Department of Water and Power.  

One of the major reasons for this shortfall is that payouts from the Liability Claims Account are expected to be “at least” $135.5 million, $67 million over $68.5 million in the City’s Adopted Budget that was blessed by the City Council in May. 

Included in these payouts is a jury verdict for an eye popping $23 million in a wrongful death suit against the deep pocketed City for its failure to repair a dangerous intersection in San Pedro. The City intends to finance this cash payout by raiding its Reserve Fund that can ill afford this hit. 

And on Tuesday, the City Council approved the payment of $8 million to settle lawsuits involving three men who were shot and killed by LAPD officers.  And once again, the Reserve Fund will end up footing the bill. 

According to City Hall sources, there are a number of other lawsuits involving the Police Department that could cost the City big bucks.  But rather than take the risk of being slammed by huge verdicts from runaway juries, the City, viewed as a deep pocket by the plaintiff ‘s bar, will elect to settle many of these cases for what appears to be outrageous amounts, but tiny compared to the potential exposure. 

The City is considering financing the $67 million of excess settlements by issuing up to $70 million of Judgment Obligation Bonds.  These bonds, which must be approved by the State and are payable over a maximum of ten years, would shore up the Reserve Fund’s liquidity, an important component in protecting the City’s high quality bond ratings. 

At the same time, the bonds are paying for what is realistically considered an operating expense, allowing the City to continue to “kick the can down the road,” dumping yesterday’s obligation on tomorrow’s taxpayers. 

A classic example is the $16 million judgment for the 2007 May Day demonstrations that was financed with a 2010 Judgment Obligation Bond that will not be paid off until 2020, 13 years after this incident involving the LAPD and 295 demonstrators in and around MacArthur Park. 

Unfortunately, this low ball budgeting scam is not an isolated event.  Last year, the City budgeted $54 million for Liability Claims, but ended up forking over $110 million in settlements.  

In the future, the City needs to develop a realistic budget for it Liability Claims Account instead of relying on the Reserve Fund and Judgment Obligation Bonds.  

At the same time, the City should make the Police Department and every other City department “own” its liabilities rather than relying on the General Fund and the Reserve Fund.  This would force the Police Chief, the Fire Chief, and all department heads to focus on preventing potential liabilities.  

Finally, the City should use its political clout in Sacramento to implement tort reform as California is considered one of the country’s top “Judicial Hellholes.”  

But maybe we asking too much of Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Herb Wesson led City Council.  After all, they have our wallets to raid.  And they would not want to alienate the campaign funding lawyers who make an excellent living by suing our cash strapped City. 

 

(Jack Humphreville writes LA Watchdog for CityWatch. He is the President of the DWP Advocacy Committee and is the Budget and DWP representative for the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.  He is a Neighborhood Council Budget Advocate.  Jack is affiliated with Recycler Classifieds -- www.recycler.com.  He can be reached at:  lajack@gmail.com.)

-cw

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