Law­suit con­cern for JPs

At­tor­ney: Fund could fall short

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FAYET­TEVILLE — A pos­si­ble judg­ment against Wash­ing­ton County may leave the Quo­rum Court pay­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands for a pend­ing law­suit — an­other sur­prise for jus­tices of the peace dur­ing a tight bud­get year.

An at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing the county sent let­ters to County

Judge Joseph Wood last month and Thurs­day say­ing the county’s risk man­age­ment pool may not cover a “neg­a­tive out­come” in a law­suit brought by a for­mer county em­ployee. Legal costs to de­fend the county are cov­ered, ac­cord­ing to the let­ters.

For­mer Chief of Staff Ge­orge But­ler filed the law­suit in April against the county, Wood and sev­eral em­ploy­ees in their pro­fes­sional and in­di­vid­ual roles. Em­ploy­ees have hired a sep­a­rate lawyer. No jury date has been set.

But­ler said in the law­suit em­ploy­ees should re­turn tax­payer money used by the county to pay for six depart­ment heads be­cause they were hired with­out fol­low­ing Quo­rum-Court-ap­proved em­ployee poli­cies. The com­bined an­nual salaries bud­geted for the six is $377,458, ac­cord­ing to doc­u­ments re­leased ear­lier this year.

At­tor­neys for em­ploy­ees and the county have de­nied But­ler’s al­le­ga­tions, ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings.

Some jus­tices of the peace say they are con­cerned about the pos­si­ble costs should a judge or jury find against it. The county’s bud­get re­mains tight and the law­suit adds to that pres­sure, said Jus­tice of the Peace Butch Pond, a Repub­li­can rep­re­sent­ing eastern Wash­ing­ton County.

“It’s not just the law­suit that’s loom­ing,” Pond said.

The county has a $65 mil­lion bud­get and about a $4 mil­lion gap be­tween spend­ing and rev­enue,

Trea­surer Bobby Hill said in an email. Un­ap­pro­pri­ated re­serve is about $6 mil­lion, in­clud­ing re­serve for jail and in­sur­ance. Jus­tices of the peace have strug­gled to build the re­serve for years, Pond said. Rev­enue fig­ures don’t in­clude money left over at the end of the year.

Pond said the law­suit makes him more likely to sup­port rais­ing prop­erty taxes. The county must be re­spon­si­ble for it­self, he said.

The county pays into a risk man­age­ment pool to pro­tect it fi­nan­cially, but only legal de­fense costs will be cov­ered, ac­cord­ing to let­ters to Wood from Rain­wa­ter, Holt & Sex­ton law firm in Lit­tle Rock. The firm, paid for through the As­so­ci­a­tion of Arkansas Coun­ties, is de­fend­ing the county.

Ja­son Owens, a Rain­wa­ter Holt & Sex­ton lawyer, wrote Thurs­day the as­so­ci­a­tion’s fund will de­cide later whether to “deny cov­er­age” if there is a “neg­a­tive out­come” to the county’s case. Owens didn’t re­turn sev­eral mes­sages left at his of­fice last week.

The county’s agree­ment for the as­so­ci­a­tion’s cov­er­age doesn’t in­clude the kind of claims But­ler has put for­ward, at­tor­neys say.

“The [risk man­age­ment fund] will pay for legal de­fense of this law­suit on be­half of the county, how­ever, if the county is found to be li­able for an ex­cluded claim, then the [fund] would not cover any judg­ment which arises from that ex­cluded claim,” said Brandy McAl­lis­ter, Risk Man­age­ment Ser­vices coun­sel with the As­so­ci­a­tion of Arkansas Coun­ties.

Wash­ing­ton County is among 51 Arkansas coun­ties pay­ing into at least one Risk Man­age­ment Fund pro­tec­tion via the as­so­ci­a­tion, McAl­lis­ter said in email. The fund is meant to “pro­vide sta­ble and com­pet­i­tive pric­ing” for ser­vices, in­clud­ing gen­eral li­a­bil­ity, ac­cord­ing to the as­so­ci­a­tion’s web­site.

The as­so­ci­a­tion’s plan to hold off on a com­mit­ment to pay for all the costs leaves Wash­ing­ton County with­out needed cost es­ti­mates, said Jus­tice of the Peace Eva Madi­son, a Demo­crat who rep­re­sents north­east­ern Fayet­teville.

Madi­son is chair­woman of the Fi­nance and Bud­get Com­mit­tee.

“This court needs to know what that [cost] could be,” Madi­son said. “I think they owe us a de­ci­sion.”

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