$50 million worth of mistakes

Legal claims are costing the city millions of dollars a year. Is it a random blip or a sign of a badly run government?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  September 28, 2006

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"OOPS": Taxpayers shell out for the city's mistakes

This year, Boston taxpayers have already shelled out more than $7 million to pay for mistakes made by city employees. Unforutnately, this is not an anomaly. Mistakes by Boston city workers — especially the police — have cost the city more than $50 million over the past four years.

Every organization, be it a large publicly traded corporation, a small family business, or a government entity of any size, makes mistakes and has to pay for them. But, when you compare what Boston is paying out with what comparable cities of its size pay in settlements and penalties, it leads to this inescapable question: what’s wrong with Boston?

The most recent expense from a big mistake came three months ago, when Boston officials agreed to pay Stephan Cowans $3.2 million to settle his claim that the city violated his civil rights by wrongly imprisoning him for six-and-a-half years. That outlay ensured for the fifth straight fiscal year that the city would far outspend its budget for such payments.

Boston allocates $3.5 million each year for these claims, out of its roughly $2 billion budget — already more than some other cities with similar-size budgets, such as Denver ($3 million of a $1.9 billion budget) and Austin ($2 million of a $2 billion budget).

But in the 2003, 2004, and 2005 fiscal years, taken together, Boston paid more than $23 million in judgments and claims, according to information provided to the Phoenix in response to a public-information request. That’s more than double the budgeted $10.5 million for those three years.

During that same three-year period, the city set aside an additional $19 million, taken from city revenues, to cover anticipated costs of pending cases. That brought the total cost of the city’s “Oops fund” — formally known as the Execution of Courts budget item — to a staggering $42 million, or $14 million a year. To put that sum in perspective, it’s equal to the entire annual Parks and Recreation Department budget. Or, roughly 300 additional police officers.

That’s a hefty tab at a time when, as Mayor Thomas Menino constantly reminds us, Boston’s city budget is stretched awfully thin. The city simply doesn’t have the money for more police, more teachers, or more youth programs, we are told. Every line item in the budget is as tight as a drum and can go no higher.

But with Execution of Courts payments, the city’s pockets seem to get deeper and deeper. Figures are available only for the first half of the 2006 fiscal year (July through December 2005), showing payments of just $1.2 million. But that sum skyrocketed in the following six months, with three reported settlements (to wrongly convicted Neil Miller, and to two people injured during the same post-game fiasco in October 2004 that ended the life of Victoria Snelgrove) costing the city close to $4 million more.

All three of those settlements stem from the Boston Police Department (BPD), as did at least $8 million in payments over the three-and-a-half years from July 2002 through December 2005.

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Related: More police problems, Righting a staggering wrong, Does Boston hate the BPD?, More more >
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