San Juan County is not broke: Legal fee settlement may be painful, but it is not likely to bankrupt county


While it is not as bad as many people think, it also isn’t as good as we may be accustomed.  

I am referring to the financial status of San Juan County.

In September, county officials – including Commissioner Bruce Adams, Attorney Kendall Laws, and Interim Administrator David Everitt – will meet with the attorneys who represented the Navajo Nation in the voting rights lawsuit to discuss a settlement of legal fees.

The meeting will be held under the watchful eye of a federal judge, who will act as a mediator as the two sides seek to find an appropriate settlement.  

The attorneys who represented the Navajo Nation in the lawsuit, led by Attorney Steven Boos, have submitted a bill that exceeds $3 million.  

The mediation effort will help determine how much of that amount will be paid.

Since the Navajo Nation prevailed in the multi-year lawsuit, a long-established precedent for Civil Rights lawsuits states that the losing side – namely San Juan County in this case – is to pay the legal bill for the prevailing side.

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San Juan County is not on the verge of bankruptcy, but the accumulated burden of multiple years of legal bills – culminating with the possible multi-million dollar voting rights settlement – will put a strain on county coffers.

The county has already paid more than $1.5 million to their own attorneys for the voting rights lawsuits.  The anticipated settlement – up to $3 million – is for the attorneys for the other side.

In total, the county has paid more than $2.5 million over the past three years for legal fees for several separate matters, including voting rights, vote by mail, Bears Ears National Monument, Recapture Canyon road rights, and more.

These fees have contributed to a drop in the general fund of the county.  Interim County Administrator David Everitt reports that the general fund dropped from $10 million in 2014 to $2.5 million by the end of 2018.

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The most recent set of financial data frankly shows that despite a number of relatively short-term challenges, San Juan County is in a strong long-term position financially.

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As of December 31, 2018, San Juan County has more than $35 million in reserves and just $3.3 million in long-term debt. Much of the debt is in revenue bonds, rather than general obligation bonds, which are comparatively low risk.

The $35 million in reserves is held in a variety of funds, the majority of which can be used only for specific purposes. These include road funds, capital funds, library funds, etc.  The county does have $7.5 million in a “rainy day” fund.  

While this fund generates interest revenue that goes to the general fund, the $7.5 million principle in the “rainy day” fund can be used only with taxpayer approval.

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So with $35 million in fund balances and relatively little debt, I would hope that San Juan County could absorb a legal fee settlement. 

It may not be easy, and it may require a little belt tightening, but I don’t think it will cause the county to declare bankruptcy, as many believe.

If nothing else, it appears as if the trend of paying large legal fees to attorneys is beginning to change.

The legal cases that triggered the large fees have mostly been settled or are in the closing phases.

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We hope you enjoy the new printing of the San Juan Record.  After nearly ten yers of printing at the MediaOne press in Salt Laske City, we are now printing the paper at the Gannett Press in Farmington, NM.

We plan to have two 8-page sections every week in the San Juan Record.

There are several changes that are necesary as a result of the change.

One unfortunate casualty of the new printing arrangement is the discontinuation of the Deseret News National Edition, including Church News, as an insert for our print subscribers.

Our apologies for the loss of an insert that was enthusiastically read by many of our subscribers.

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It has been a strange weather year in 2019, including a significant delay in the arrival of fall colors.

The first sign of fall is often a change in the maple trees near the old ski lift on the Abajo Mountains.  That change, which often takes place in mid-August, has still not occurred this year.

And there is still little hint of any change in the aspen or oak brush. 

You can always count on the rabbit brush, which has been blooming bright yellow for several weeks.

San Juan Record

49 South Main St
PO Box 879
Monticello, UT 84535

Phone: 435.587.2277
Fax: 435.587.3377
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday