West Chester Twp. has spent more than $400,000 to defend and settle lawsuits within the past few years, money that largely came from taxpayers’ pockets.
And taxpayers can expect more litigation bills in the months ahead.
The township is in the midst of a zoning dispute involving its denial of a sexually oriented business license to the Sandford Group, which wanted to open a swinger’s club.
Butler County Common Pleas Court Judge Craig Hedric ruled Mike Juengling, the township’s director of community development, improperly revoked the license based on an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification & Investigation letter that said that one of the club owners, Eric Adams, “may not meet” qualifications for licensing.
The township appealed the case to the 12th District Court of Appeals in March. So far it has cost West Chester $23,683 in legal fees and their insurance carrier has paid $20,800.
Several recent lawsuits and settlements have fueled some hefty fees, including more than $300,000 for West Chester Twp.’s battle over a Kroger location.
The lawsuit over locating a Kroger Marketplace at the corner of Ohio 747 and Tylersville Road was filed by Silverman and Company in April 2014 and ended this past March with a settlement.
Attorneys fees totalled $311,452 and the township paid out of pocket $168,744 of that amount because they chose to use their own attorneys from Frost Brown Todd.
As part of the settlement, the land was rezoned and a preliminary development plan approved that includes several landscape buffers along Tylersville Road.
Township Administrator Judi Boyko said their insurance company caps the amount attorneys can be paid, but officials felt they needed the expertise their own law director has.
“They are familiar with our operations, they are familiar with the history of our zoning and the particulars of our zoning code and comprehensive land use plan,” Boyko said. “So it’s much more effective to use a firm that is familiar with those facts of the case.”
West Chester just recently settled another case, this one against Trustee George Lang, which accused him of defamation and slander. It settled for $18,000.
The township incurred $79,141 in legal fees — Frost Brown Todd was not on the case — and the insurance carrier did cover the costs, minus a $2,500 deductible.
The case stemmed from comments Lang made at a Butler County Tea Party meeting in February 2013, where he claimed police officers Gary Gabbard, Randall Farris and Paul Lovell Jr. used excessive force while breaking up a bar fight at Win, Place or Show Sports Bar & Grill on U.S. 42 in May 2012.
Lang previously told the Journal-News he didn’t want to settle the lawsuit, he wanted to take it to trial, where he was confident he would have prevailed.
“I did what was in the best interest of the taxpayers of West Chester Twp.,” he said in April. “They (the officers) came down from asking hundreds of thousands, almost $300,000 in total, to $6,000 a person … the cost of the settlement was significantly less than what the cost of litigation would have been.”
That’s the choice government entities have to balance: the cost of litigation versus the cost of reaching a settlement.
Boyko said they don’t have any choice in defending these cases.
“It is responsible and required that when sued that a local government must defend itself,” she said. “Of course West Chester strives to perform effectively and productively to avoid any waste of taxpayers’ money on lawsuits, but a party can sue for reasons they deem necessary.”
In 2014, the township reached a settlement with Morning Star Baptist Church. The church opened up a school on Summerhill Drive but did not apply for a conditional use permit to do so. When they came to ask permission to erect a sign, the error came to light.
When the church did apply for the permit, it was denied by the zoning board of appeals.
The settlement allows the church to operate the school but sets limits on enrollment. West Chester Law Director Scott Phillips handled this case, and the township paid $12,028 in fees, with their insurance company picking up $10,468.
Elsewhere in Butler County, the village of New Miami has racked up more than $80,000 fighting to keep $1.8 million in speeding ticket fines. The clock is still ticking on those legal fees now that the village has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to consider it. The village is footing the entire legal bill.
A year ago Butler County increased its deductible to $100,000 and ended up saving about $400,000. In the past year Human Resources Director Jim Davis said they haven’t had any claims that exceed the deductible and the total amount paid out on 30 claims, including attorneys’ fees, is $104,000.
“It’s just dumb luck,” Davis said.
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