Los Angeles budget officials warned, in a January 6 memo, that the City needs to immediately borrow tens of millions of dollars to avoid dipping into its emergency reserve fund after several high-profile lawsuit payouts.
The City Administrative Office recommended that the city borrow $50 million to $70 million to address cases that are part of a “new trend of increased liability payouts.”
The City typically budgets $60 million a year for its legal liability fund, but has already paid out $135 million since July 1, when the current fiscal year began.
Recent significant payouts include a $200-million settlement by the Los Angeles City Council over a housing-related lawsuit brought by disabled groups and an $8-million settlement to end lawsuits related to the fatal Los Angeles Police Department shootings of three unarmed men in separate incidents. The $200 million will be paid out over 10 years.
The report recommends issuing Judgment Obligation Bonds to fund these settlements, and warns against dipping into the city’s reserve fund, which is for financial emergencies.
As of November, the reserve fund stood at about $295 million, which the report said is “only precariously above” the minimum amount required under city policy – 5% of the General Fund budget. The recommendation comes after the city paid out $100 million in legal cases last fiscal year, said Assistant City Administrative Officer Ben Ceja. He said the rising expenditures “could be the new normal in terms of paying out cases.”
After calling the financial crisis to the attention of City officials, a Second Financial Status Report reported “a potential $52 million expenditure deficit and highlighted risks to revenues totaling $138 million. Since that report, additional information has increased the reported expenditure deficit to up to $80 million, while a new identified shortfall increases the combined revenue risk to $165 million. Therefore, the combined potential deficit currently stands at $245 million.”
The Report goes on to state that the “options to resolve this deficit are extremely limited.” The deficit is “mostly driven by the liability claims account, human resource benefits account, and recent labor agreements reached with firefighters.”
“One significant source of expenditures includes pending resolutions to additional cases being handled by the City Attorney and Conflict Counsel. These payouts are above the $135.5 million identified in the FSR, which already exceeded the Adopted Budget by $67 million. As this Office stated at the time of the adoption of the 2016-17 Budget, potential liabilities above budgeted amounts posed a major risk in 2016-17 that had the potential to exceed the available reserves set aside in the Unappropriated Balance. The City must strive to increase the funding available for liabilities in the upcoming budget process.”
In order to borrow the money, the report requests that “the City Attorney to present an amendment to the Los Angeles Administrative Code (Section 11.27) to clarify and expand on the types of settlements that are eligible to be paid with Judgment Obligation Bonds in a manner more consistent with current legal practice, and to provide more procedural flexibility with respect to the timing of certain portions of the issuance process.”