Palm Beach County should not appeal to the Florida Supreme Court its setback in its Inspector General lawsuit with area cities, County Attorney Denise Nieman told county commissioners Wednesday night.
“Just because an appeal will not be filed does not mean that this matter is closed,” Nieman said in the email. “Staff will be meeting in the near future to discuss a number of possibilities available for your consideration.”
In November 2010, voters approved creating the Office of Inspector General and requiring cities help pay for it. Fifteen cities sued, arguing the county could not force them to pay. The county won the first legal battle. But the cities appealed, and on Dec. 21, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled for the cities.
Nieman said she worried that, in an appeal, the Supreme Court could hand down “an unfavorable ruling that could have a negative statewide impact.” She said the county’s efforts “are better spent reviewing all options available to us in light of the (appellate) Court’s opinion, including, but not limited to, service contracts with the municipalities.”
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.
“Those numbers show a true success for your office,” committee member Sarah Shullman told Carey. “You’re bringing the municipalities and county into compliance. We shouldn’t see an increase.”
In the budget year ending Sept. 30, Carey said in his update, his office found $5.7 million in questioned costs and $314,000 in potential cost savings. He said it made 14 referrals to law enforcement or the county or state commissions on ethics.
With the cities not paying, the county has made up the difference, paying its share of about $1 million a year, plus what the cities should have been paying.
The amount the cities have been assessed since the Inspector General started in 2010, including what they were billed for the budget year that started Oct. 1, is up to $4.9 million, according to figures provided by the county’s budget office to The Palm Beach Post.
Of that, the cities have paid $303,461. Fourteen have paid nothing.
The county has said that, should the cities exhaust the appeal of their lawsuit, it intends to pursue arrears.
In 2010, following a rash of scandals that left the area with the unfortunate nickname “Corruption County,” voters in each of the county’s cities overwhelmingly approved creation of the office, which provides oversight to local governments covering 13,000 employees and $7.5 billion in combined budgets.