WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock said Tuesday she will not use money collected from any of the county's 38 cities and towns to pay for the inspector general's office until a lawsuit alleging the collections are illegal is resolved.
Bock, who serves as the accountant and watchdog of all county money, has asked a judge to allow her to intervene in the lawsuit, fearing she could be held liable if a court determines the municipalities were not required to help fund Inspector General Sheryl Steckler's office.
Fifteen of the county's cities and towns have filed suit over the payments, arguing that they are an "illegal tax" prohibited by Florida's constitution.
Bock has not taken a position on the municipalities' suit.
"As the Clerk & Comptroller, I am responsible for auditing all county expenditures, including those for the IG's office," Bock said in a statement released by her office. "The municipalities' lawsuit has called into question the funding mechanism used to support the IG, so the clerk must seek direction from the court."
About half of Steckler's annual $3.3 million budget 2011-2012 is supposed to come from the municipalities. That budget is based $1.5 million from county taxpayers, $1.2 million from the 38 municipalities and the rest from contracts with other agencies, and other sources.
Once the county's money runs out, Bock's office said it will stop processing payments from the inspector general's account. Revenue from contracts must be used only for those agencies.
Steckler could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Her family remained in Tallahassee when she signed the four-year contract to fill the post in 2010.
Joe Doucette, the inspector general's chief of administration, said he did not know what effect the clerk's decision would have on the office.
"We need time to look at it," Doucette said "It is unclear how it will impact our operations and our budget at this point because we haven't had time to do an analysis."
County commissioners last week delayed a decision on whether to allow Steckler to hire six employees to oversee the county's Health Care District and Children's Services Council, citing the municipalities' lawsuit.
Commissioner Karen Marcus has said the county should not be forced to make up the shortfall if the cities don't pay, while others on the board have questioned whether Steckler should stop oversight in cities and towns that have refused to pay the bill.
County Administrator Bob Weisman questioned Tuesday whether Steckler's oversight in the municipalities should be halted immediately if Bock's office is no longer using their money to pay for her services.
"This might require (commission) direction," Weisman said.
At least 15 cities and towns have not paid their bills, and Bock's office said it plans to discontinue efforts to collect the funds. Money that has already been collected will be segregated from the rest of the money in Steckler's account.
Bock's office said the inspector general will face a $1.6 million budget shortfall, unless county commissioners agree to pick up the tab.
The inspector general post was created after a grand jury in 2009 recommended it as part of a package of ethics reforms in a county that had just seen three of its commissioners imprisoned for felonies. Voters overwhelmingly agreed last year to extend Steckler's jurisdiction to cities and towns.
Chase Scott, a West Palm Beach spokesman representing the municipalities that have filed suit, said the group welcomed Bock's action.
The municipalities who have sued say they don't oppose Steckler's oversight. Rather, the group says the payments leave residents of cities and towns paying twice for Steckler's services.
"The clerk's motion underscores the importance of a lawful payment program," Scott said. "We appreciate her sensitivity to the important legal issues involved. The 15 cities will continue to work to ensure our citizens are not taxed twice and to support a system of checks and balances."
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