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Yet Another Taxing District?


Palm Beach County property owners are taxed in many ways.  We pay separate tax rates for our cities, for our schools, and for the county government.  We also pay for the county libraries, the Health Care District, the Children’s Services Council, and a variety of inlet and water management districts.  If we live in the unincorporated areas we pay separately for Fire/Rescue.

Now there is a proposal to create yet another tax district – for the Office of Inspector General.  Why this and why now?

It is raw politics.

Some Background

The Office of Inspector General was established in 2009 by the County Commission in response to the grand jury report investigating “Corruption County”.  With many commissioners and lobbyists serving jail terms for abuse of the public trust, it was a correct response, and much effort went in to making the office “independent”.   Hiring was performed by an independent selection board.  Removal required the votes of the entire selection board plus 5 of the 7 commissioners.   The budget was floored at an amount .25% of the contracts that vendors have with the county, and could not be reduced without 5 votes of the commission.

In 2010, a ballot initiative asked the voters if the IG jurisdiction should be extended to the 38 municipalities, with a proportional increase in funding to come from those entities.  72% of the voters agreed and the result was codified in the county charter after a six month effort by an ordinance drafting committee.  The committee was composed of representatives of the county, the League of Cities, and the public, but much of the discussion was contentious.  The cities objected mainly on two grounds – that the scope was too broad and that the purview of “waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement” needed to be narrowly defined to limit what the IG could investigate, and that the funding formula based on a LOGER estimate of contract activity constituted an illegal tax.   The ordinance draft did pass by a majority vote.

In 2011, after the IG began her work with the cities, the opposition began.  Many cities passed local ordinances adding the definitions that were rejected by the drafting committee.  A narrative was established that complying with the IG would be prohibitively expensive to answer their questions and fix any problems found.   “The people did not know what they were voting for” became the operative justification for the opposition.  Finally, in a major strike, 15 of the 38 municipalities filed a lawsuit claiming that the funding mechanism is illegal under Florida law, and refused to remit their obligated funding.   Funds already provided by the municipalities that were not party to the lawsuit were sequestered by the County Clerk.  A crisis in funding was at hand.

Recent Developments

On Tuesday, 3/20, a lawsuit “settlement proposal” negotiated by County Attorney staff was brought to the Commissioners.  Under its terms, the cities would collect a contract fee of .25% levied by the county on their contracts, to be used for IG oversight of only those contracts.  Contracts that predated 6/12 would be excluded, as would a long list of exempted contracts including large ones like FPL, waste collection and all federal grants.   The IG office estimated that acceptance of this settlement would gut 60% of their budget, effectively limiting their oversight of the municipalities.  After a large number of members of the public came forward urging rejection of the settlement, the commission voted 7-0 to reject it and move on to mediation.

On Monday 3/26, a joint meeting was held in the West Palm Beach City Hall between the County Commission and the representative of the municipal litigants.  It was an august collection of the most senior public officials at the local level. While all professed to “support the IG”, and that the lawsuit was “just about the funding”, an objective observer could conclude that an independent Inspector General with free rein to investigate in the cities was not universally embraced.

Commission Chairman Shelley Vana correctly summarized that the intention of the ordinance is to provide for IG independence by having the governing body NOT control the IG budget.  Mayor Muoio and the others see that as the crux of the problem – how can you be responsible for a budget if you can’t set the level of spending on a line item.  Why, if the economy is bad, we may just decide not to fund the IG at all in a given year!  Control of the IG budget is control of the office – just what the ordinance is intended to prevent.

During this meeting, West Palm Beach attorney Glen Torciva suggested an independent taxing district as the way out of the dilemma.  Let both the county and the municipalities wash their hands of the funding issue and let the people decide.  Of course a new taxing district would have to go on the ballot – perhaps this November.  This is perfect for those who believe “the voters didn’t know what they were voting for” in extending the IG to the cities.  Instead of asking “.. should we have an IG?” as in the 2010 question, we will ask ”  .. should we pay more taxes so we can have an IG?”   Maybe then the 72% of the voters who wanted to meddle in the affairs of our elected officials will think twice. 

If you have any doubts about the motive here, consider Mr. Torciva’s statement to the Palm Beach Post

“If the people want to be taxed for the inspector general, then let them be taxed, and if they don’t, they won’t and there won’t be an inspector general.  Frankly, the way it was sold to the voters wasn’t transparent and it wasn’t honest.”

Commissioner Burt Aaronson, a supporter of the concept, added (with a smile): 

“If the voters really want an inspector general, then they should have no problem going ahead and approving a special taxing district.”

The creation of the Office of Inspector General and the Ethics Commission has gone a long way to correct our reputation as “Corruption County”.  This latest attempt to neuter or eliminate the office proves that we still have a lot of work to do.  The roughly $3.5M OIG budget would be equivalent to a 0.03 millage rate on our $120B property valuation – hardly worth the effort it would take to collect it.  The current LOGER system is an accurate, reliable way of measuring local economic activity and establishing a fee for IG services.  Whether a fee is actually charged to a contract or not, it is a reasonable way to both estimate and bill.  

We think the county and cities should find a way to make it work and drop any attempt at forming a new taxing district.

Comments

One Response to “Yet Another Taxing District?”
  1. D. Clark says:

    If the IG is to be funded it should be funded by roadside beggars with signs saying “What’s in your wallet?” We cleaned house without an IG. Why add another bureaucracy.

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