Denver’s Department of Public Works was accused of causing property damage or bodily injuries roughly every day and a half for the last seven plus years.
Altogether, the agency responsible for deploying the city’s snow plows, repainting street lanes and managing other public infrastructure in the Mile High City racked up 1,870 claims from January 2010 through last month, according to data obtained from the Denver City Attorney’s Office.
The data highlighted in today’s Chart of the Week shows that, out of all the city’s departments, Public Works had the most claims filed against it over the 86-month period. What the data doesn’t show — and what the city says it can’t easily determine — is what those claims are for and how many of them actually resulted in payouts.
Denverite filed an open records request with the City Attorney’s Office asking for an annual breakdown of the total number of claims filed against the Denver Department of Public Works. We also asked to see how many of those claims were denied, how many of them resulted in payments from the city and how much was paid out.
“In order to provide the breakdown of claims filed against the Department of Public works you requested, we estimate that 1,870 claims filed would need to be researched and that a total number of 470 staff hours would be required to conduct the necessary research and provide you with all of the information you have requested,” the city wrote in response.
Denver charges $30 per hour to fulfill record requests. Even with the first hour free, it would still cost roughly $14,000 for just the broad numbers on claims against Public Works. Learning what people were accusing the department of could cost even more.
Taxpayers ultimately pay when Denver makes mistakes or screws up.
Denver generally requires people to file a written claim if they think the city or its employees caused wrongdoing. Once the notice is received, the City Attorney’s Office decides whether the city can legally be held responsible for whatever it’s accused of. The office then either denies and closes the claim or offers a settlement when appropriate.
“If the claimant does not accept the settlement offer, he or she may decide to file a lawsuit and proceed to litigation. All settlements over $25,000 for property damage claims and $5,000 for all other liability claims are submitted to City Council for approval,” according to a 2013 audit of the City Attorney’s Office: Litigation and Claims Management.
From 2010 through 2016, the city transferred upward of $25 million from the General Fund to the Liability Claims Special Revenue Fund to settle claims and pay settlements and judgments against the city.
The Denver Office of the Auditor found room for improvement in the city’s handling of claims in its 2013 report. In the audit, the City’s Attorney’s Office was scolded for not working with Denver’s Risk Management team and monitoring trends in claims. The lack of that information makes it harder to prevent Public Works and other employees from making the same mistakes.
In a 2015 follow-up report from the Office of the Auditor, the City Attorney’s Office said it would come up with a plan to look at trends at least quarterly and the agency would work with Risk Management to conduct an assessment of liability trends over a five-year period to prevent problems going forward.
The City Attorney’s Office did not say Wednesday if it has since started working with Risk Management or analyzing claims data.
Public Works said it’s not receiving any breakdown about claims from the City Attorney’s Office.
“I don’t have exact numbers, but I think it is safe to say the majority of claims for Denver Public Works are pothole and driving-related,” said department spokeswoman Nancy Kuhn in a statement.
Public Works has hundreds of vehicles and equipment operators on the streets each day. Sometimes they ding a car or cause other damage that results in a claim being filed. And since the department is also responsible for repairing potholes, driver’s who hit one and damage their vehicle could blame the department.
Drivers and city employees continually go through training to avoid making mistakes that could ultimately result in a claim being filed and taxpayer dollars going to cover it, Kuhn said.
As for potholes, people can request repairs online.
This post has been updated with information about the 2013 audit and the 2015 follow-up report.
Subscribe to Denverite’s newsletter here bit.ly/DailyDenverite.