The County Commission Report

Palm Beach County commissioners on Tuesday tussled with a number of items that could hurt or help business in a big way.

The Wage Theft Ordinance  has been a concern to business owners since its first reading. The proposal was brought to the County Commission for consideration by a local group known as PEACE, or People Engaged in Active Community Efforts. The ordinance was modeled after one in place in Miami-Dade County that is being challenged by a lawsuit filed by the Florida Retail Federation. The next hearing for the lawsuit is scheduled for July.

The Palm Beach County ordinance would allow employees who believe they are victims of wage theft to recover back wages. It also provides a course of action to file a complaint with the county. The Legislature filed a bill that would prevent counties and municipalities from passing wage theft ordinances that replicate state efforts, but the measure did not come up for a vote before the session ended in May. The business community’s position is that the ordinance isn’t necessary because it is duplicative. Wage theft is already illegal under existing state and federal laws, which apply to everyone. Complainants don’t have to have legal resident status to file a grievance.

In February, county commissioners approved the Wage Theft Ordinance on preliminary reading with the caveat that it would be readdressed after results were clear on both the pending legislation in Tallahassee and the lawsuit against Miami-Dade. Since then, the business community, PEACE and the Legal Aid Society have worked together to establish a pilot program to address this issue, and the collaboration is already helping individuals determine if they have legal recourse against employers suspected of wage theft.

Tuesday’s discussion centered around giving the Legal Aid pilot program an opportunity to work without putting further strain on a county department with limited resources. Commissioners unanimously agreed to table further consideration of the ordinance until March.

In other business, the county is still working out kinks in financing the Inspector General’s Office. Commissioners debated how the $3.5 million cost of the office — more than $3 million of which is staff alone — will be spread among the municipalities. The agency began with a staff of 18, but after adding 38 municipalities to its scope, department officials expect an additional 16 people will be needed, bringing the agency’s total to 34. With budgets tightening, this issue will spark more fireworks before it’s through.

On a positive economic note, commissioners passed a resolution and conceptual approval of a tax exemption for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.’s  expansion project for a helicopter testing facility. The cost of the exemption is modest and is contingent upon creating an additional 14 jobs, with an average salary of $80,000 over a three-year time frame.

The County Commission also passed a resolution urging the Florida Legislature, the governor and the Department of Corrections to continue operating the Glades Correctional Institute in Belle Glade. During the recent legislative session, bills were passed, with the governor’s support, requiring all South Florida prisons to be privatized. Glades Correctional was excluded from the list, but deep cuts to its operating budget will make impossible to keep the facility open without additional funding. This is a concern for a community already experiencing unemployment rates of nearly 40 percent and that could see losses of $29 million in wages and 587 direct and indirect jobs.

Over the past three years, the Business Political Action Committee of Palm Beach County has monitored the votes of county commissioners and the legislative delegation, printing a report card of their voting records. This report card helps make county commissioners accountable for their actions, and gives the community a simple score card that shows just how our lawmakers vote, so that their actions may be compared with the positions they take during campaigns. Watch for this year’s report card to be released soon.

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