As a Yolo County Supervisor and former mayor, I’ve worked with local budgets for years. One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as a local elected official is dealing with the budget crunches that have occurred as local government revenue has plunged during the recession. These deficits have led to reductions in public services and cuts to public safety budgets.
At the same time that many public safety budgets are getting slashed, city and county governments have paid enormous amounts of money in legal settlements. Why? California’s lawsuit-happy legal climate causes local governments to spend exorbitant amounts of money defending or settling lawsuits, oftentimes from unscrupulous plaintiffs’ attorneys eager to make a quick buck rather than spending the money where it’s needed most.
The fact is cities and counties are no longer able to afford even the basic costs of operation, let alone the unpredictable cost of lawsuits. California Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse (CALA) recently published a report examining the cost of lawsuits to cities in California, and found that in fiscal year 2007, the cities of Anaheim, Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, San Diego, and San Jose spent $101.2 million in litigation, $60.9 in verdicts and settlements, and $40.2 in outside counsel.
Luckily, there is a fix out there: legal reform. Our Legislature needs to recognize that abusive lawsuits are draining tax dollars from local government coffers and making it more expensive for them to provide the services that people need.
As I travel through California and see local governments closing parks, reducing hours at libraries, and browning out fire stations, I hope voters will demand that their legislators take action and pass legal reforms as soon as possible.