Pitkin County will have an extra $200,000 in the budget this year for litigation, in case simmering matters related to oil and gas drilling flare up, or other legal challenges arise, commissioners agreed at a meeting Tuesday.
The public money comes in addition to $75,845 in already-approved litigation funds for 2012.
In 2011, the county far outspent its legal budget fighting criminal and civil charges against government officials accused of wrongdoing in the poisoning deaths, by carbon monoxide, of a family of four. The cases related to the deaths of the Lofgren family of Denver were dropped last year. Prosecutors had accused local building inspectors of negligence for failing to catch glitches in the snowmelt system of a luxury home the family was renting in 2008.
The county and city of Aspen spent a total of nearly $260,000 last year on lawyers and court costs in those cases.
County attorney John Ely told the commissioners Tuesday that he had reduced the litigation budget in recent years. It had been between $200,000 and $300,000 in years past.
“Over the last 10 years I’ve been budgeting a lesser and lesser amount,” Ely said. “That’s just the trend. It would have been fine, but for the expenditures in [the] Lofgren [case].”
Ely asked to up this year’s litigation budget for similar unforeseen legal costs. He also warned that increasing pressure from natural gas companies to drill in the county, and the likelihood that the county will challenge gas leases in federal court, may lead to continued higher spending.
“This allows us flexibility,” Ely said of the higher budget, “especially now dealing with issues of gas exploration and extraction.”
The three present commissioners unanimously supported the request. Commissioner Rob Ittner asked Ely to prepare a report on litigation spending by the county over the last 10 years.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners approved spending $16,000 to hire a consultant from the nonprofit Aspen Strategy Center. The consultant will help the county develop a plan for expanding broadband internet access and wireless communications in rural areas of the county.