Karen Marcus

Former Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus, shown on the right, has worked behind the scenes to try to settle a funding dispute between 14 cities and the county over the Office of Inspector General. (Sun Sentinel / May 8, 2013)

Former County Commissioner Karen Marcus Wednesday defended her behind-the-scenes effort to try to settle the legal fight between 14 cities and the county over how to pay for the Office of Inspector General.

A coalition of 14 cities – including West Palm Beach, Boca Raton and Delray Beach – since 2011 have waged a legal challenge against the county’s requirement that they help pay for the $3.7 million budget of the voter-approved local government watchdog.

Marcus’s settlement proposal, which became public Tuesday, calls for reverting to an earlier plan to pay for the inspector general’s operations by adding a 1/4 percent fee onto government contracts.

But under the deal, the inspector general could only use that money to pay for inquiries into local government contracts and not to pay for the broader audits of government operations.

Inspector General Sheryl Steckler contends that general auditing powers are a basic tenant of her oversight duties that should not be sacrificed.

Marcus counters that the county and some cities already have internal auditors to keep watch over their operations and don’t need to pay the inspector general to do that. Cities that don’t have auditors could opt to pay the inspector general to handle their auditing, according the proposal from Marcus.

“It wasn’t to strip it away. It was to give choices,” Marcus said the auditing aspect of her settlement proposal.

But a potential settlement that threatens to severely restrict the reach of Steckler’s auditing abilities may face an uphill climb with the current County Commission.

Commissioner Jess Santamaria, a staunch supporter of Steckler, called the suggestion of curtailing auditing another attempt at “undermining” the inspector general.

“That would completely close down the office. That is the heart and soul of their existence,” Santamaria said.

County Mayor Steven Abrams said he wants to learn more about the proposed settlement and whether there is a way for Steckler’s auditing abilities to continue, possibly without tapping into fees from the cities.

“I don’t support just eliminating the auditing function,” said Abrams, who heads the commission.

Marcus said she got involved in trying to broker a settlement between the county and cities before term limits in November ousted her from office after 28 years on the commission.

Marcus said Palm Beach Gardens Councilman Joseph Russo asked her to join him in working on a settlement. Marcus suggested switching to the contract fee and not requiring the county and cities to pay for inspector general auditing.

Marcus said she met with representatives for the 14 cities at least once before leaving office to discuss her suggested settlement and then once more after leaving office.

“I have been there so long and know the nuts and bolts,” Marcus said. “I’m still a citizen. I’m still paying taxes too.”

Marcus, who has been critical of inspector general costs and operations in the past, said she knew Steckler wouldn’t like her settlement proposal.

“She pretty much doesn’t like anything these days,” Marcus said.

Steckler said she didn’t like being left out of the settlement talks and still needs more details about what has been proposed.