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$10.3M verdict won’t up tax bills

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Last week’s $10.3 million verdict in a police-shooting case — perhaps the largest ever against the city — won’t hit Albuquerque property owners on their tax bills.

City Attorney David Tourek said Tuesday that the judgment, if it stands, will be paid out of City Hall’s self-insurance program.

“The city maintains reserves for such situations as this,” Tourek said.

Albuquerque also has the option of putting judgments on property-tax rolls, which requires City Council approval. But Tourek said that would not be the case here.

However, even when awards don’t go on property-tax bills directly, the public still ends up paying for them. The city is self-insured, so tax dollars essentially end up paying legal claims through a “risk management” fund.

A jury last week awarded more than $10.3 million in damages to the family of a man shot and killed by police in 2010. A judge in the case already had ruled that a detective’s shooting of Kenneth Ellis III was unlawful, and a jury trial was held to determine damages and settle other claims.

Tourek said the $10.3 million award is the largest initial “finding of liability” ever against the city, as far as he knows. It’s not the biggest case, however, if you factor in attorney fees and the accrual of interest. That would be an Uptown zoning case, which ended up at $13.5 million.

City Councilor Rey Garduño said he’s concerned about the city’s ability to absorb last week’s verdict. He questioned city executives about it in a council meeting on Monday.

“It worries me, the numbers being discussed,” Garduño said.

Rob Perry, the top administrator under Mayor Richard Berry and a former city attorney, said the case isn’t over. He couldn’t get into specifics, he said, but the city has a variety of options, including appeals.

“Litigation doesn’t end with the verdict,” he told the council on Monday.

However, if the city makes an unsuccessful appeal, it could end up paying interest on the initial judgment.

That’s what happened in the Uptown zoning case, in which Albuquerque Commons Partnership filed a civil-rights case against the City Council.

The original 2003 judgment in that case was for $8.3 million in damages. The judgment grew to $10.248 million after interest accrued as the case was appealed, according to the city.

About seven years after the original judgment, the total tab came to nearly $13.5 million once attorney fees and other expenses were factored in, Perry said.

Another big judgment came in the late 1990s, when two plaintiffs in a traffic case won $8.7 million in damages.

“I think it’s beneficial to realize that many previous administrations have had to deal with these kinds of judgments,” Tourek said.

A decision on whether to appeal the Ellis judgment is expected to go before the city’s Claims Review Board, an internal panel that includes the city attorney, chief administrative officer and other city officials.

“I don’t make that decision on my own,” Tourek said.

Ellis, an Iraq War veteran, was shot by police in a January 2010 standoff outside a Northeast Heights convenience store. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and held a gun to his own head throughout the encounter, which ended when an APD detective shot him once in the neck.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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