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City Council member Robin Lumb
Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Aug. 12, 201412:00 PM EST

Money for inspector general in question after council committee rejected all new spending

by: David Chapman

Nine members of City Council signed their support to create an independent Office of Inspector General.

City Ethics Officer Carla Miller is 100 percent behind creating the watchdog office.

And the Ethics Commission voted Monday to support the idea.

Despite the support, the bill has a minimum of $400,000 in new spending and creates a governmental entity. Both ideas are completely contrary to the actions of the council Finance Committee, which last week began slashing Mayor Alvin Brown’s budget.

Other new programs slated to be created weren’t. Funding levels for services and programs were frozen at current-year levels.

The committee, so far, has said no additional funding for police officers, nonprofits and libraries.

Does the new office stand a chance?

“We’re going to find a way to fund this thing,” said council member Robin Lumb, who has spearheaded the effort. “We are not going into fiscal year 2014-15 without a functioning, independent Office of Inspector General.”

Lumb said this issue is “fundamentally different” than other items council has sliced in the past week. Instituting the office would pay for itself and more through city cost avoidance.

“This goes to the heart of good governance,” Lumb said.

Despite the early support from other council members, Richard Clark is maintaining his budgetary stance on new programs and spending: nothing will be added.

“We just don’t have the money,” said Clark, who is finance chair. “Again, at this point it’s a wonderful conversation to have … but how do you fund it?”

At a time when public safety and library funding was held in check, Clark said there can’t be exceptions at this point.

The bill to fund the office is scheduled for committee review next week, but the Ethics, Compliance and Oversight office is up for its in-depth budget review Thursday.

“We’re so early in the process. This is Week 2,” Clark said. “You can’t make exceptions.”

Miller said she agrees with the actions council members have taken, ensuring there isn’t waste within government. But while the intensive budget review lasts a couple of summer months each year, Miller said the inspector general’s office will handle similar duties 12 months a year.

Such offices look for city fraud, waste and abuse. While the new office is budgeted for $400,000 minimum to set up a “bare-bones operation,” Miller said she is optimistic the city could “fairly easily” recoup that and more through office findings.

The funding would be used to hire an inspector general, an investigator and a contract specialist. There’s a chance in the phase-in year the price tag could be less, maybe $300,000.

Brown initially added $50,000 to Miller’s office for part-time hours to hire an inspector general on an as-needed basis. After former Palm Beach County Inspector General Sheryl Steckler was hired for several weeks to help review outstanding cases, Miller told the ethics commission more is needed.

She said the two went through 65 or so non-ethics cases that needed expertise and that five- to six have been identified as needing an investigation and audit. Miller told the commission that, overall, the level of oversight in the city’s millions in contracts is lacking and “really needs to be tightened up.”

Miller is not a certified inspector general and has said the need is there for a “finely tuned expert” who can assist with growing caseloads that go to Miller.

Shortly before Monday’s vote, commission member Tom Paul told the other members the commission’s most important action is to help her out immediately.

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