tampabay.com

Car allowance hits $7, 200

Employees are told to do more with less while commissioners' car allowances double.

By BILL VARIAN
Published May 6, 2007


TAMPA - So your mileage reimbursement at work isn't keeping up with skyrocketing gas prices.

Maybe you should run for the Hillsborough County Commission.

County Administrator Pat Bean quietly doubled the car allowance for commissioners after the election last year - to $600 a month, or about the advertised lease price for a 2007 Cadillac Escalade. The car allowance, in lieu of a mileage reimbursement, is now worth $7, 200 a year.

The hike comes as commissioners, who are paid $91, 966 annually, are telling county employees they need to do more with less given legislative proposals to slash property tax revenue.

Even with the mileage increase, commissioners say they're losing money meeting the many requests for their presence at events scattered across a county of more than 1, 000 square miles.

Commissioner Brian Blair, who regularly says government needs to do a better job of squeezing nickels into dimes, noted one recent day had him logging 157 miles traveling across the county to meet with residents. He said that's not unusual for a commissioner elected countywide, and that if he exercised his option to claim mileage at government reimbursement rates of 48.5 cents a mile, the county would owe him more.

"Driving around in a normal week or normal month, we're still in the hole, " Blair said.

Newly elected Commissioner Kevin White, who represents mostly central and eastern Tampa, said he also racks up the miles.

A former police officer, White said he still has a habit of refreshing the trip meter on his odometer each day as he did while on the force. Reached Thursday afternoon in his car, he said he was on mile 83 and headed to a town hall meeting in Palm River. "I didn't know it went up, " White said. "But I would say it's justified."

Some of his fellow newcomers to the board said they were a little surprised with the amount of the allowance. Al Higginbotham, who represents the sprawling District 4 seat, which spans much of eastern and southern Hillsborough, calls it generous.

Rose Ferlita, who like White moved from the Tampa City Council to the County Commission in November, said the amount seems a little high based on her experience, particularly with the spending constraints being threatened for county employees. She represents parts of South and West Tampa, as well as the entire southern Hillsborough shoreline.

"Setting an example starts at home, " Ferlita said. "In good, honest conscience, I can't say I spend that much on mileage. We're talking about laying people off."

Bean said she made the adjustment after most of the commissioners voiced concern that the car allowance hadn't risen in more than a decade despite sharp increases in gas prices. Each of the commissioners reached denied requesting an increase, with only Commission Chairman Jim Norman saying he was aware Bean had someone do an analysis of the payment last year.

As chairman, Norman makes 10 percent more than the other commissioners and has a second job traveling the state as a consulting analyst with the Salvation Army that pays him $82, 162. Many days he drives to County Center in a 2002 Pontiac owned by the Salvation Army.

He said he does most of his county-related driving in his other vehicle, a 2000 Chevy Tahoe he uses for his weekly visits to county neighborhoods. He said he pays taxes based on the annualized cost of the Pontiac for the time he uses it that is not charity-related, driving it to County Center because he often leaves for work with the Salvation Army afterward.

Norman noted that the car allowance has not gone up in the 14 years he has been on the board.

"We're expected to be all over this county, " Norman said. "I'm not sure, with where the prices are today, that we're not contributing to the cause."

Bean said the survey she commissioned looked at similarly sized and nearby county governments and found the old $300 payment was on the low end among those providing a car allowance. Now it's on the high end, according to the same survey, lagging only Miami-Dade among 11 counties surveyed.

Bean said she settled on the amount because it is slightly more than the roughly $6, 000 it costs the county to provide a large sedan to certain employees who drive a lot as part of their work. She said commissioners tend to drive even more than most employees.

The administrator did not raise her own $295 allowance, or that of other county employees.

"If I had given myself an increase, it would have been less because they are elected officials, " Bean said. "There is a level of respect you deserve when you put yourself out there in a way that's different than the average person."

Staff writers Will Van Sant and Bill Coats contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at 813 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts:

 

Travel cash

Here's what other governments provide, according to a Hillsborough County survey conducted last year:

Broward County: $450 monthly allowance.

Miami-Dade: $800 monthly allowance.

Orange: $320 monthly allowance.

Osceola: $300 monthly allowance.

Palm Beach: $550 monthly allowance.

Pinellas: Mileage.

Source: Hillsborough County