With a possible settlement close at hand, the second annual "Rip-Off Reunion" Saturday - recognizing the collapse of Utah's thrift industry two years ago this month and subsequent suffering of 15,000 depositors - may change from a whine and gripe session for depositors to an upbeat celebration.

Thrift depositors have gained quite a bit of ground since last year's reunion when they declared war on the state. A class action lawsuit against the state and intense lobbying of the Legislature has since brought parties to the bargaining table, and a settlement seems more likely than ever.Gov. Norm Bangerter is reported to have told a recent gathering of women attorneys and acountants that he hopes depositors' multi-million dollar claims are settled within 30 days.

Legal counsel for the depositors said a meeting among the various parties involved in the settlement is scheduled for early next week.

"Hopeful is a good way to describe it," said Sheila Bohard, spokeswoman for Depositors of Insured Thrifts, predicting the atmosphere at the upcoming reunion, which will feature speeches, food and socializing. Bohard said state legislators have been invited to attend.

But while the atmosphere may be more upbeat than last year, the last two years have turned most thrift depositors skeptical of state government assurances, and they won't believe it's over until it's over, she explained.

"At this point we don't know if it (a settlement) will go through, there are still a lot of definite maybes," Bohard said. "But we are very hopeful at this point."

Depositors were stunned and hopeless two years ago on July 31, 1986, when state regulators froze about $100 million in deposits in five thrift and loans after shutting down an insolvent deposit guaranty fund that insured the accounts. The five thrifts were placed under liquidation, and about 15,000 depositors stood to lose a total $40 million in savings.

But depositors organized and rallied, filing a class action lawsuit against the state and about 300 local individuals and professional firms to recover the anticipated losses. An intense lobbying campaign was also launched sending a message to lawmakers that the problem won't disappear.

The state's initial settlement offer was rejected by depositors last May, and Bangerter canned a recommended resolution from his self-appointed task force the following month saying it put too much of the settlement burden on taxpayers.

But while the state and depositors have been at odds since the thrift debacle occurred, they have agreed that the best source for a quick resolution are the national insurance companies that carried the state's liability coverage until July 1985, when the state started its self-insurance program.

Bangerter told lawmakers meeting in special session earlier this month that the state had liability insurance as regulators struggled to solve the thrift crisis and those carriers "should participate significantly" in settling the depositors' lawsuit.

"It is for cases like this that we paid insurance premiums, and I have therefore called upon our insurance carriers with vigor," he said.

State risk management director Alan Edwards said the state is negotiating with carriers that provided about $100 million in liability coverage for negligent action on the part of state officials between 1981 to 1985. In addition to negligence, the lawsuit accuses the state and others of fraud and racketeering in operating the thrift industry since 1982.

In addition to insurance policies, Bangerter also said "other defendants" in the case should contribute to resolving the problem. The others include law firms, accounting firms and former thrift officers who were involved in running the troubled thrift industry.

While the state recognizes a moral obligation to help depositors, the insurance companies and other defendants can't settle on that motive and must deal only with legal liability in the case.

Despite documents and statements revealing officials believed early on that the state was legally liable for any losses to thrift depositors, the defendants have filed motions to dismiss the depositors' complaint, which they argue is a technically flawed, shotgun approach at finding a deep pocket.

A ruling on that motion is pending.

But Edwards said the insurance carriers must also look at how the policy holder was affected by the thrift problem in terms of regulation, reputation and trust.

"There's more to it than just the money involved," he said.

What it may boil down to, some observers say, is the insurance companies and defendants taking into account the nuisance factor and cost of the lawsuit dragging on for years and considering the value of paying some now or possibly a lot later.