Inspector general

Fourteen Palm Beach County cities are waging a legal fight against the county's requirement that they help pay for the budget of Inspector General John Carey, a local government watchdog. (August 21, 2014)

The future of Palm Beach County's local government watchdog now rests in the hands of a judge, who is expected to resolve a three-year funding fight with 14 cities.

The voter-approved Inspector General's Office and its team of auditors and investigators were created in the wake of public corruption scandals to hunt for fraud, waste and abuse in local government.

But 14 cities, including West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Boca Raton, are trying to convince the courts that the county can't require cities to help pay for the inspector general's budget, which at times has grown to $3.7 million a year.

The county says that voters in 2010 overwhelmingly endorsed the creation of the inspector general post as well as the idea that cities would help pay for the oversight.

Now, after a three-day trial that ended Thursday, it's up to Circuit Judge Catherine Brunson to rule on whether the county has the power to require the cities to help pay for the inspector general. A ruling isn't expected until September at the earliest.

City representatives say they are trying to keep the county from imposing a tax that unlawfully dips into their coffers.

"The county has attempted to fund their program with our money," Doug Yeargin, West Palm Beach assistant city attorney, told the judge.

Reform advocates though have warned that the lawsuit is aimed at weakening the inspector general's oversight abilities.

"Some people do not want to be watched," said County Commissioner Jess Santamaria, who testified for the county during the trial.

Amid a string of Palm Beach County government corruption scandals, a grand jury in 2009 recommended a series of ethics measures that included creating the inspector general post.

In November 2010 about 70 percent of voters countywide approved expanding the oversight reach of the inspector general to include all 38 cities. The referendum that voters approved also called for the inspector general to be "funded by the County Commission and all other governmental entities subject to the authority of the inspector general."

Voters in the 14 cities and all other municipalities "resoundingly" approved the referendum, showing they agreed that cities should help pay for the inspector general's office, Assistant County Attorney Helene Hvizd told the judge Thursday.

"This case is about one thing, democracy," Hvizd said. "Government by the people."

In 2011 a coalition of cities filed a lawsuit saying that it was unconstitutional for the county to try to bill the cities for a share of the inspector general's budget, which they didn't get to approve.

The 14 cities argue that they are not trying to do away with the inspector general, but that the county can't force the cities to pay with a "tax masquerading as a fee," Yeargin said.

"Go back to the drawing board and figure out a lawful way to fund (it)," Yeargin said.

The Inspector General's Office audits government contracts, investigates tips of wrongdoing and looks for ways to save taxpayers' money by making government more efficient. The inspector general can issue recommendations that city and the county officials decide whether to implement. Suspected criminal wrongdoing is turned over to the State Attorney's Office.

Inspector General John Carey took over the county watchdog post in June, replacing the county's first-ever inspector general, Sheryl Steckler, at the end of her four-year contract.

During the cities' funding fight, the inspector general's office has been left with about a $1.5 million less than anticipated for annual operating expenses, which has hampered investigative efforts.

The judge had both sides prepare proposed judgments should could opt to use to make her ruling in the coming weeks.

Even after a long-awaited ruling in the three-year-old case, an appeal could prolong the funding uncertainty for the inspector general.

abreid@sunsentinel.com, 561-228-5504 or Twitter@abreidnews