More than six years after the creation of the Palm Beach County Office of the Inspector General, the political infighting between Palm Beach County and more than a dozen municipalities over its funding remains a bitter feud with no resolve in sight. The latest salvo came last week, when the Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled that Palm Beach County’s municipalities do not have to pay to fund the county office, a decision which overturned a prior lower court ruling. But hold on to your hats, because the Florida Supreme Court is still waiting in the wings, and that’s where the next legal argument will likely be heard.
This is a conundrum with many years of history behind it. In 2010, county voters overwhelmingly, with 72 percent approval, backed the creation of an independent Office of the Inspector General, which was intended to provide oversight not only to the county government, but also to local municipal governments.
According to the county’s charter, the inspector general oversees all municipalities within the county. Fifteen cities filed a lawsuit and have refused to pay the costs required, tying up funding for the office, which has spent years trying to meet its charter obligation with half the necessary staffing. Meanwhile, Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock has stopped billing municipalities for the service until the lawsuit is resolved. Two communities, including Wellington, have since dropped out of the lawsuit.
At issue is how the OIG should be funded. The municipalities’ position is that the Board of County Commissioners adopted a policy where the county, in its sole discretion, decides the OIG’s budget and issues invoices to each municipality representing the percentage each owes to offset the OIG’s expenses. (The county created a municipal funding mechanism that charged vendors 0.25 percent of the cost of the contract to fund the OIG office. The exact method has not been used before.) The lawsuit challenges the county’s authority to make financial decisions regarding a countywide service and then send municipalities invoices to pay the cost of the service. While the result of the lawsuit has been to hamstring the finances of the inspector general, the municipalities stress that their lawsuit only contests the manner in which the office is funded and does not challenge any other aspect of the OIG program.
The county’s position is that the OIG was created and empowered by the vote of residents across the county, and that sans financial payments from those communities, is providing a free service for the 39 Palm Beach County municipalities. County officials contend that the tax was levied by the voters upon themselves during the 2010 enabling referendum when 72 percent of county voters favored the creation of the Office of the Inspector General, included significant majorities in each and every county municipality.
The irony here is that the funding mechanism was originally agreed to by the municipalities, and was only challenged once it was implemented. As we have maintained for the past decade, it is crucially important that Palm Beach County have a fully funded and robust Office of the Inspector General. Further, we believe there needs to be a buy-in on both the county and municipal levels. One of the standards of the OIG is government transparency, and this applies to all levels of government. Everyone needs to contribute.