The 4th District Court of Appeal has ruled that area cities don’t have to contribute to an inspector general program established by Palm Beach County after voters approved a referendum calling for such a program.
That referendum was approved in November 2010 by a majority of voters in the county and by a majority in each of the county’s municipalities.
But after the county created the Office of Inspector General in 2011 – and required cities to help pay for it – 15 cities sued, arguing the county could not force them to pay for the program.
The county won the first legal battle when a trial court ruled that funding the program was not a discretionary budgetary decision and that the county could compel municipal payment for it.
The cities appealed, and today the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in their favor, setting the stage for the case to go to the Florida Supreme Court.
Asked if the county will take the case to the state Supreme Court, County Attorney Denise Nieman said: “We’re exploring our options.”
Inspector General John Carey said he’s “deeply disappointed” by the ruling.
“My disappointment is that we must continue to provide the OIG oversight to the County and all municipalities at approximately half staff,” he said.
West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio said the ruling reaffirms that cities have the right to determine how municipal funding is spent.
“It can not be imposed on us by the county,” she said.
Sharon Bock, Palm Beach County’s clerk and comptroller, has said her office will designate a special account so money from the recently approved increase in the sales tax can be closely monitored.
“A dedicated staff person will be assigned to monitor the receipts coming in, as well as audit any expenditures from this new fund,” Bock said in a statement released Friday.
She added: “Rest assured that my office will examine and account for every penny that is allocated and spent.”
Voters approved a 10-year increase in the sales tax from 6 cents on the dollar to 7 cents on the dollar. The increase is expected to generate $2.7 billion, with the School District of Palm Beach County getting half of that money, the county getting 30 percent of it and cities getting the remaining 20 percent.
County commissioners and staff have said they’ll use the county’s portion – estimated to be about $810 million – to repair parks, roads, bridges and buildings.
In approving the sales tax plan, commissioners also supported the establishment of citizen oversight committees to make sure the money is spent as originally planned. But Bock said she’ll be watching as well.
“As the official ‘watchdog’ of all county funds, I am constitutionally tasked to provide the necessary ‘checks and balances’ on the county’s budget, revenue and spending,” she said.
Bock’s office does have the power to refuse to release funds if she determines that the spending does not serve a public purpose.
“I know your tax dollars are in good hands,” she said. “We are here to protect and preserve public funds with integrity and accountability.”