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Montgomery County Legislature may set aside cash for legal fees

Thursday, February 20, 2014
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— Montgomery County’s Legislature is looking to set aside money to deal with some litigation.

At a meeting Tuesday, the Finance Committee voted to move $30,000 from a contract account to the Professional Services funding line. While professional services covers a host of things, the $30,000 is earmarked mainly for lawyers.

“A few things have come to our attention,” said District 7 legislator and finance committee member Barbara Wheeler.

Those “things” she mentioned are lawsuits. The county is currently facing two lawsuits and a notice of claim. In such circumstances, the county might have to bring in some expert legal help.

Local insurance broker Pasquale “Pat” Baia is currently suing the county for breach of contract. In 2007 he helped the county, city of Amsterdam and several municipalities set up a health insurance trust. It operated like a small independent insurance company, collecting money from employees and paying out claims.

Baia, under the name of Benefits Marketing, was broker of record, receiving middleman fees.

When the old board dissolved the trust in favor of outside health insurance, he filed a lawsuit demanding more than $1 million. That suit is still pending.

Recently, Casper Wells, a minority share holder of the agency previously responsible for brokering Montgomery County’s commercial liability insurance, filed a notice of claim in preparation for his own breach of contract lawsuit, this one demanding a half-million dollars.

The county is also listed as one of several defendants in a wrongful arrest civil suit filed by Amsterdam man Patrick Boles. Boles was arrested in 2010 while two repo men hauled away his Ford F150. He claims the Montgomery County sheriff’s deputy that arrested him had no right to assist in a private property dispute. He’s blaming the county for not training the deputy well enough. That case is bound for trial.

With all the legal issues, Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said he needed some financial flexibility to hire lawyers.

“This is a common-sense move,” he said.

The Professional Services line is allocated a certain amount of dollars each year, according to Wheeler. She said the 2014 money isn’t used up, just spoken for.

“Dental services for the jail comes out of professional services,” she said, “and there are a lot of other things.”

With all the demands, she said Ossenfort just needed some available funding should a lawsuit require specialized help.

The dollar amount was somewhat of a compromise. When Wheeler served as an Amsterdam city ward supervisor on the old, now dissolved board of supervisors, she said she saw as much as $150,000 set aside for lawyers’ fees.

“That made my stomach turn on behalf of the taxpayers,” she said.

By comparison, $30,000 is a conservative step. Lawyers can get pricey — $200 an hour, according to Ossenfort. Should the $30,000 run out, more could be siphoned off from a contingency account left by the old board in case of emergencies.

“Unfortunately, lawsuits are all too common in this day and age,” Wheeler said.

The resolution transferring Professional Services funds must be approved by the full Legislature at a meeting later this month.

 
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