Either a lot of people are suing Erie County or it's going to cost a lot of money to settle the outstanding lawsuits. That's one conclusion you could draw from Thurday's action by the County Legislature to add $1 million to the county's Risk Retention Fund.
Because the county is self-insured, the fund is used to pay settlements for successful lawsuits against the county and to pay for outside lawyers brought in to handle some cases. Erie County is constantly involved in lawsuits, sometimes for small problems and sometimes for bigger issues like paralysis in a swimming accident.
The county's handling of lawsuits is secretive compared to City Hall, which has a Claims Committee to handle or monitor lawsuits. The Legislature vote came after a rare executive session where legislators and county lawyers discussed the fund privately. There was no discussion when the measure came before the public session for a vote.
Lawsuits against the county range from multi-million dollar lawsuits over becoming paralyzed after an accident in a city pool, to minor claims for bent tire rims. Legislature chairman John Mills says the number of pending lawsuits have been reduced from 900 to about 600 since Republicans took control of the legislature.
"We've been very cautious about not allowing a lot of money to sit in risk retention." says Mills. "So, we've been cutting it since we've taken control. So, they ask for $3 million, we sometimes will cut it a million. It's been working, so all of a sudden now, we're a little shy."
When the Legislature approved the last budget, it reduced the amount of money to be transferred to the fund to $1 million, down from the $2 million requested by County Executive Mark Poloncarz in his budget proposal. Thursday's vote essentially restored that money.