The outgoing Commission approved an adjusted budget for 2018 at their Dec. 18 meeting. They increased the 2018 budget in the amount of $300,000.
The increase includes $238,404 to legal defense, $37,596 to health, $10,000 to general capital, and $14,000 to road capital. Commissioners generally need to adjust the budget every year to account for the actual costs of running the sprawling county.
While most of the adjustments are relatively minor, the cost of a variety of legal issues continues to provide an ongoing challenge. Through November, the county had paid $627,493 to outside legal counsel for the year.
The legal costs appear to be dropping when compared to previous years. In 2017, San Juan County paid $1,085,184 in legal fees. In 2016, total legal expenditures were $823,132.
Despite the drop, two outstanding legal issues may have a dramatic impact on future budgets if the county is forced to pay the legal bills of the opposing side in two federal lawsuits.
Attorneys representing Grayeyes seek legal fees for a lawsuit in federal court regarding his commission candidacy.
Blake Hamilton, an attorney representing the county, reports that a settlement may be finalized in the near future.
Grayeyes filed the lawsuit after he was removed from the ballot in March. Federal Judge David Nuffer placed Grayeyes’ name back on the ballot.
Grayeyes secured a spot on the Commission in the Nov., 2018 general election and is scheduled to take the oath of office as Commissioner in the new year.
Judge Nuffer dismissed the case soon after the election.
In addition, attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the voting rights lawsuits have submitted a request that the county pay more than $3 million in legal fees. That process will be overseen by the federal courts.
Previous rulings in the voting rights lawsuits are under appeal. The decision regarding attorney fees is not likely to be made until after the appeal process is complete. A ruling on the appeal is expected in March.
Through Nov., 2018, the county paid $355,767.44 in legal fees related to the voting rights lawsuits. Since 2012, the total bill to defend the lawsuits exceeds $1.5 million.
The 2018 payments include $57,000 to Dr. Bernard Grofman, who drew boundaries for the new voting districts.
The cumulative cost of all legal fees, which exceed $2.5 million in the past three years, may be a key reason for a drop in the general fund account. The general fund generally had a balance between $6 and $8 million in 2014. By 2017, the fund balance had dropped to around $4.5 million. Last month, the balance dropped below $1 million.
The general fund balance generally grows between November and December as property taxes and other collections are received. Last year, the fund grew by more than $1.5 million between November and December.
In 2018, the San Juan Health Service District borrowed $1 million from the county to help purchase a new Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machine at San Juan Hospital. The funds, taken from the general fund balance, will be paid back by the health service district.
Despite the drop in the general fund balance, the overall balance of county funds remained steady in the past year.
In 2017, the total of cash and cash equivalents in county accounts equaled $33.5 million. One year later, they had dropped just $32,000. They include $7.5 million in a tax stability fund, $19.5 million in B road funds, $3.7 million in a road capital fund, and $2 million in a solid waste landfill fund.
In other legal matters, through November, 2018, the county has paid $145,181 in legal fees related to public lands issues. This is on top of the $320,145 paid over the previous two years.
In 2018, the county paid $17,553 for expenses related to the Latigo Wind Farm. The county was sued for the public planning process related to the approval of the wind farm.
This year, legal fees to fight the designation of Bears Ears National Monument were $1,165. Over the prior two years, the county paid more than $550,000 to Davillier Law Group to fight the monument.
Grayeyes and Maryboy, the two new members of the San Juan County Commission, are both supporters of the initial monument designation.
In 2018, the county paid $84,246 in legal fees related to charges against Sheriff Rick Eldredge and two deputies. The charges were dismissed. The county expects to be reimbursed by the State of Utah.
Payments for other legal fees in 2018 total $23,580.
These totals do not include other expenses related to county issues, including lobbying efforts, marketing efforts, and public relations firms.
These totals are payments for outside legal counsel. County Attorney Kendall Laws handles additional legal issues in-house.
In the ten years between 2009 and 2018, the county has paid more than $3.5 million in outside legal fees.