• July 31, 2014

Lawsuits cost the city money, time

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Posted: Sunday, October 11, 2009 12:00 pm | Updated: 8:07 am, Thu Aug 16, 2012.

By Hailey Persinger

Killeen Daily Herald

Despite being hit with two unexpected lawsuits in less than two weeks, Killeen officials have a course of action.

The West Bell County Fraternal Order of Police served the Killeen police department with a lawsuit Sept. 28. Just 10 days later on Oct. 7, the mother of a man who was shot and killed by Killeen police officers served the city with a wrongful death suit. While both suits were filed and served in rapid succession, the city's plan for processing and paying for costs associated with lawsuits is rather cut and dry.

City Attorney Kathy Davis said the process begins at the county courthouse when the party that filed the suit then pays to have the suit served to the mayor. Though the city's charter outlines that requirement, Davis said sometimes the lawsuit will hit the desk of the city manager or the city secretary if the filing party is not aware of the charter's stipulations. That doesn't usually impact the process, however.

"Usually that's not something that we contest if they serve the wrong person," she said. "As long as they serve someone usually we'll go forward. You could contest it and say 'you didn't serve the mayor' but all that does is delay it."

Once the mayor, or another city official, has been served, Davis said the next step depends on whether the filing party is seeking monetary reparations or an injunction. In the case of the West Bell County Fraternal Order of Police, the filing organization did not ask for any money. In a case like this, the Texas Municipal League, which acts as what Davis called a sort of "insurance" for the city's legal issues, typically does not provide litigation for the city.

The family of the soldier who was killed by police, however, sued the city for money. When money is involved, Davis said, TML generally takes charge on litigation. Though Killeen has its own legal department, it does not handle its own litigation.

"Litigation is a very specialized area and it's very time consuming but it's not all the time," Davis said. "It comes in fits and spurts so it's not reasonable for us to have a litigator on staff. We wouldn't be able to keep them busy full time."

Regardless of who handles litigation, lawsuits also include court fees and other costs. Finance Director Barbara Gonzales said that despite deep cuts to the 2010 fiscal year budget, the city kept funding for legal battles at a total of $209,000, a number she said hasn't changed in years. The city was hit with six civil suits between September 2008 and September 2009 and Gonzales said the money allotted has been more than enough.

"In the last several years that's been above and beyond what we've needed to cover these claims and damages," she said. "We've always kind of been able to budget a little bit more than what we spent."

In contrast, the city of Temple, which has fewer residents than Killeen but is also rapidly growing, allocates $70,000 for costs involved in lawsuits.

"That's also not only for attorney fees but if … a garbage truck backs into somebody's fence or something, that's the account we pay that out of," said Traci Barnard, Temple's finance director.

Though it may seem that much of the in-court work is done by outside parties, Davis said the city spends massive amounts of time on groundwork for each case it takes on.

"Even though we're not doing the litigation we do a lot of the background work," she said. "We're not the ones standing up in court generally defending the case but we're doing as much of the work in house as we can."

Contact Hailey Persinger at haileyp@kdhnews.com or (254) 501-7568.

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