Somebody’s got to say it: sometimes the price of something positive is so high it’s not worth the price. We may face that decision with this business of Palm Beach County’s inspector general. There is such a thing as taking a good idea too far, and perhaps a lesson is being taught that a government agency can expand by fostering the image that they’re so needed, they’re untouchable.
Let’s revisit history. The inspector general and ethics commission were created by county ordinance in 2009 in response to various instances of government corruption. Legitimate objections were raised at the time against creating a new branch of government and a new bureaucracy to house yet another investigator.
With all due respect to current Inspector General Sheryl Steckler, who appears competent, the county Clerk & Comptroller’s Office in 2009 had an Inspector General & Audit Department functioning to identify government waste, inefficiencies, and government misuse of power. In fact, Comptroller Sharon Bock had uncovered many millions in unneeded costs and fiscal abuse. But, many of the county commissioners and the county administrator politically despised the clerk because she had criticized earlier actions, so they refused to increase her authority by giving her the IG office, where it should have gone because she already had in place the infrastructure and skills to handle it.
In truth, the need never existed in the first place to create a new branch of government, now known as the office of inspector general. But any proposal to place the IG under the comptroller’s office would have been DOA at the county commission. The commission played politics instead of opting for less costly government.
Enter the self-sainted media at that moment, launching a harm to the county. They made it clear they would crucify any politicians in the county who whispered a word against a new office of inspector general and ethics commission. For fear of being branded “anti-ethics”, every politician was afraid to speak out about this sharp expansion of government costs.
And the drumbeat of unquestioning, all-positive media treatment did another disservice. The Palm Beach Post, for example, never analyzed on its pages the value of the IG compared to its costs. Apparently, no price was too high for the IG and the ethics commission to operate.
But now, we may begin to see a darker side of the IG program. This is the side that the media, county commissioners, and advocates were either vague or intentionally deceptive about: the costs for this government watchdog. Amid the glowing talk in 2009-10 about the need for investigations, the voters were never informed fully about how much this new government mouth would cost to feed. The number that was tossed about, as though incidental to the decisions, was an annual cost of about $1 million. Those of us accustomed to government chicanery knew this was absurd — Miami-Dade’s IG costs were almost six times that much — but questioning voices were dismissed.
The danger of the IG office is not its current activities, which appear to be positive. It’s the reaching for more investigative power that’s scary, and the potential added costs that come with expansion. Modern government always seeks more power, first a foot in the door, then expansion forever. Government’s demands never become satisfied. Its “wants” magically transform into “needs.” If five inspectors are good in government’s eyes, 10 are twice as good.
We are already seeing efforts made to extend IG reach into the school district, the Health Care District (HCD), and other government agencies. Now we see the unelected board at the HCD paying six-digit money to yet another unelected government agency, the IG office. This is tax money that’s supposed to be spent on health care.
When the county commission created this new branch of government, and when the voters authorized municipalities to come under the purview of the IG, the voters never bargained for uncapped multi-million dollar budgets that will surely climb in the years ahead. Who will watch the watchdog? How will the office of the inspector general give assurances to voters that we have not unleashed a hungry tax monster?