West Palm Beach and its partners in obstinacy have proposed another truce of sorts in their battle to weaken Palm Beach County’s government watchdog agency. But the details reveal that it’s no better than previous ones. Predictably, this latest settlement offer would do little besides undermine the agency.
The Office of Inspector General has been in West Palm Beach’s sights ever since the agency’s jurisdiction was expanded in 2010 by voters to include the county’s 38 cities. A year later, West Palm Beach led 15 cities in refusing to pay their share of the inspector general’s budget, alleging in a lawsuit that requiring them to pay violates the state constitution.
That lawsuit is still languishing. In the meantime, the cities and the county government, the suit’s target, have bandied about various scenarios for settling the case. Resolving it is an important goal, but the cities’ proposals have been unacceptable. County commissioners should reject this latest one and figure on letting a judge resolve this case.
The back and forth has hinged on how the inspector general’s $3 million budget is paid for. In 2011, representatives from the cities and the county unanimously agreed to the current system, in which cities contribute directly, based on the size of their budgets. But now these cities have done an about-face, claiming that this amounts to an illegal county tax on independent municipalities.
So the cities want to throw out that system in favor of a new one in which the inspector general’s office is paid for by surcharges on government contracts with private businesses. And they want the county to do all of the collecting. In making their bid, they point out that contract surcharges were originally considered the best way to finance the office.
There’s nothing wrong with imposing surcharges on contracts, but it’s time to drop the idea that this could ever provide the majority of the inspector general’s budget. The proposed settlement exempts so many kinds of contracts that it’s unclear how such a system could generate much revenue. And surcharges could be applied only on new contracts, so in the first few years this system would produce almost nothing.
That’s not the only problem with the cities’ proposal. It would also be difficult to verify how much each municipality pays to vendors. Many cities don’t even know themselves, since different contracts are managed haphazardly by different departments.
In proposing this model, the cities’ real motive appears to be to reduce the cost to them and their contractors and dump more of the cost on the county. The result could be a severely underfunded inspector general’s office. Not coincidentally, this would mean less oversight of how cities spend tax dollars.
For these reasons, the system in place now, in which municipalities pay based on their overall spending, is the best one yet proposed. It’s simple, transparent and fair. That’s probably why representatives from the cities and the county unanimously supported it when it was put in place.
Now, though, these cities reject it. Since they have not offered an acceptable alternative, the best bet for county commissioners is to resolve this case in court.
for The Post Editorial Board