Before a meeting room full of residents, the Palm Beach County Commission agreed Tuesday to provide $400,000 to the Office of the Inspector General to cover a budget shortfall as a result of 15 municipalities refusing to pay their share of the office’s expenses.
The municipalities have filed a lawsuit protesting the mandate to pay for part of the funding after voters approved a charter amendment that extended the inspector general’s jurisdiction to municipalities.
Payments from municipalities — both those involved and those not involved in the lawsuit — are being withheld by the office of Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock, pending the outcome of the suit.
Assistant County Administrator Brad Merriman said the office faces a potential budget deficit as a result of the lawsuit.
Inspector General Sheryl Steckler agreed. “I’m asking you to provide the funding for us to do our job, and also the job that the county and the people of this county expect us to do, and provide us the resources that we have already been approved to do, but we cannot spend,” she said.
Steckler noted that for its first 15 months of operation, the Office of the Inspector General was allocated $1.8 million and spent $1.3 million, coming in $500,000 under budget. From what was spent on the first 15 months, the office has a return on the investment of $2.3 million.
Steckler explained that the current financing for the office is based on a percentage of vendors’ contracts with government entities subject to its jurisdiction. That base is set at 0.25 percent of the contracts’ sum, which would have generated $4.2 million, but Steckler requested only 0.18 percent, which equaled $3 million.
“Due to the lawsuit, we have been reduced 21 percent,” she said, explaining that with that reduction, she could not continue hiring additional staff to take on the increasing responsibilities of her office.
The office currently has 15 staff members, while 32 were planned for the current workload.
Between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2011, Steckler’s office received 185 written complaints and 964 telephone calls. She pointed out that the previous year, there were more complaints related to the county, but that has changed. “The municipalities are now the majority of the complaints coming in,” she said.
Steckler said the workload for her office has grown enormously. “We are bursting at the seams,” she said. “I can no longer just stay quiet and live without, because we cannot continue to keep up the workload.”
David Baker, representing the Palm Beach County Ethics Initiative, asked commissioners to support financing for the Office of the Inspector General.
“I’m here to ask you to adequately fund the office, which is currently inadequately funded, and restore its stability,” he said. “It is currently unstable because of the job it has to do, and the funds it has to do that job.”
Baker pointed out that the funding mandate comes from the county’s charter and the ordinance that the commission adopted. “The suit filed by some of the cities has impacted the inspector general’s ability to do her charter-mandated job to audit, investigate and assist the county and all municipalities,” he said. “We’re asking you to restore that stability.”
Royal Palm Beach resident Jeff Hmara, an RPB council candidate, said opposition to an effective Office of the Inspector General has taken many forms.
“It’s difficult to know exactly what the motives of the individuals who are creating these barriers are, but it is likely that some are motivated by discomfort with vigorous oversight,” he said.
Hmara said he spoke from the perspective of a person who was subject to the scrutiny of many inspectors general in his experience as a government official in a range of positions over a 41-year career — 26 years with the U.S. Army and 15 years as a civilian with the Federal Aviation Administration.
“During the majority of my career, I was responsible for awarding contracts and monitoring the execution of major national-level programs,” he said. “In the acquisition field, it is not unusual to experience oversight of an agency inspector general. This firsthand experience was not something that I eagerly sought, but something I came to value.”
Hmara said he came to believe that the oversight was important in many ways, including as a deterrent and as a tool to improve efficiency and effectiveness. He added that although the county has implemented the recommendations of the grand jury report to create an office based on the Miami-Dade model, it still has not implemented adequate financing of the operation.
“If we do not fully fund the office, we will slide backward and lose this rare opportunity for positive change in the way our local governments operate,” he said.
Wellington resident Morley Alperstein was very critical of his home community’s participation in the lawsuit against the Office of the Inspector General.
“Wellington has had dramatic growth in the last 10 years,” he said. “It recently made major improvements, a new city hall, an amphitheater, a playground for handicapped kids, a new swimming pool, a 9/11 memorial, major improvements for roads and landscaping, plans for a new senior center and a Boys & Girls Club,” Alperstein said. “Wellington seems to have money for everything, except not one dollar to fight corruption.”
Tony Fransetta, president of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, said he supports the office.
“We need the inspector general, and I ask each and every one of you: If you’re going to fulfill your civic responsibility, you will vote to give that money to have a confidence level by the people,” he said.
Commissioner Burt Aaronson made a motion to allocate $400,000 for the Office of the Inspector General. The motion carried 6-1, with Commissioner Karen Marcus objecting. She said the county lacks the funding and that she would prefer to wait until March to see if the lawsuit could be resolved.