March 18th, 2010 10:59 AM by Sherry Lee
Ethics reform doesn’t come free.
That was the message from Palm Beach County commissioners Tuesday who formally approved a new fee on county contracts to pay for the operations of a new inspector general – charged with weeding out government waste and corruption.
But before the yet-to-be-hired watchdog can start looking for ways to save the county money, taxpayers will be paying an estimated $250,000 for software improvements needed to implement the new fee in the county’s billing system.
The fee to pay for the inspector general’s office calls for deducting one-fourth of 1 percent from future payments to contractors, vendors and other businesses handling work for the county.
The theory was that the fee would provide an independent source of revenue for the inspector general that would not leave the new watchdog beholden to the County Commission for money. It was, after all, past commission scandals that led to the creation of the inspector general position.
Yet so far, property tax dollars controlled by the County Commission are paying the way for getting the inspector general and the newly appointed Ethics Commission established.
The County Commission already agreed to provide an initial $320,000 to get the inspector general’s office started until the revenues from the new fee kick in and the software improvements agreed to Tuesday add an anticipated $250,000 in costs.
“The urban legend is … it’s free,” said Commissioner Jeff Koons, who called for tapping the new fee revenues to help the cash-strapped county pay for the software fix. “The reality is that it’s $250,000. … Where’s that money going to come from?”
Other commissioners supported county staffers' plan to use tax dollars and other revenues to pay for the software changes and reserve the money from the new fee for the new inspector general.
It has long been understood that county funds would help get the inspector general and Ethics Commission going, Commission Chairman Burt Aaronson said.
They were part of a slate of reforms recommended last year by a state grand jury and supported by community groups in the wake of three county commissioners in three years going to prison amid a federal corruption investigation.
“This is no surprise,” Aaronson said. “One way or the other, it’s all coming from the taxpayers. … This is what the public wanted.”