Stanislaus County's legal fund to balloon

The Sheriff's Department's legal problems are weighing on Stanislaus County's precarious budget-balancing act.

The county is setting aside $7 million in its general liability fund, an account that pays for legal expenses for 27 departments. That's more than triple the $2.3 million the county put there two years ago.

The Sheriff's Department generated "the bulk" of legal challenges requiring the general liability fund to triple, says a budget report going before county supervisors today.

Law enforcement agencies are regular targets for civil lawsuits, often filed by people who believe they have been mistreated by officers during arrests or altercations.

Sheriff Adam Christianson's department has a couple of expensive cases in that vein, such as a claim filed by the family of a mentally ill jail inmate who died in custody a year ago. Craig Prescott's family is seeking $10 million in the case.

In addition, the department has drawn legal challenges from 10 current and former female employees. The department settled one case in October for $545,000 with three women who alleged that they were punished for raising claims of workplace discrimination. The county won a lawsuit in March that was filed by a female employee who claimed she was sexually harassed.

Every department pays into the liability fund. The money is kept on hand to pay for insurance premiums that cover the costs of lawsuits in excess of $250,000, including attorney fees and awards. The fund also covers costs for cases that don't reach the $250,000 deductible.

About half of the liability fund's money comes from insurance reimbursements. The rest comes from the departments, with the departments where claims originate paying a greater share.

The fund went from $2.3 million in the fiscal year ending July 2008 to $4.4 million the next year and $6 million this year, the report says.

It's expected to require $7 million in the next fiscal year, said Monica Nino, county assistant executive officer.

Christianson contends that his department's obligation to the liability fund this year increased a relatively small amount and said an accounting formula allows him to spread it over seven years.

Nino said the Sheriff's Department is paying $611,520 in 2009-10 and will be charged $965,930 in the next fiscal year.

"A majority of cases in the current year are in the sheriff's office," Nino said. "The department is getting the largest hit as far as net growth goes."

Christianson noted that the county in March successfully defended a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by former clerk Lydia Lopez, whose lawyer sought a $490,000 judgment.

"The costs have to be reimbursed by the plaintiff," Christianson said Monday.

Jeffery Hubins, who represented Lopez, agreed that his client could be responsible for some court costs, but said the county is barred from seeking reimbursement for attorney fees. The county's tab for outside counsel had reached $820,000 before the start of the five-week trial.

Christianson, who is running for re-election in June, said Monday, "Lawsuits are a direct result of holding people accountable."

The third-quarter financial report is a sober document detailing the county's dim fiscal health. Discretionary revenue, mostly from property and sales taxes, remains in a nose dive, pulling in $79 million compared with $91 million a year ago, the report says.

All departments have been ordered to cut costs 9 percent. Employees agreed to furloughs reducing their pay by 5 percent in each of the next two years. And layoffs resumed last week with notices to 52 workers in the Sheriff's Department and 25 library employees. Today, supervisors are expected to approve five more in the public defender's office as well as four for assessor's employees.

More layoffs in public health are expected May 18. Still others May 25 or June 8 will eliminate workers in planning, public works, strategic business technology, general services, community services, health services, veterans services and the Area Agency on Aging, this week's document says.

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.