County leaders fill up on gas funds

Published May 9, 2007

Talk about your bad timing.

Soaring gas prices have numbers on the pump spinning like cherries on a slot machine. Filling the tank feels like donating a vital organ. Meanwhile, employees of local governments are bracing for some serious belt-tightening.

And the Times reports that Hillsborough County commissioners got their monthly car allowance doubled, from $300 to $600 - a $7, 200-a-year perk, if you're doing the math.

Comes off as sort of "let them eat cake, " given the current state of affairs, don't you think?

Or maybe it's "let them purchase high-test."

County Administrator Pat Bean compared what local commissioners were getting paid for driving around on county business to what commissioners make elsewhere.

The results ranged from $320 in Orange County to $450 in Broward to $800 in Miami-Dade.

The Hillsborough commission got its bump after the last election.

The process included no public airing of the $600 figure Bean came up with, no final vote, no chance to say, hey, wait just a penny-pinching minute, are we sure about this?

If filing up costs you 40 bucks, this amount would pay for 15 tanks of gas each month. (Or as the Times' Bill Varian reported, the cost of leasing a new Cadillac Escalade.)

Add the monthly perk to commissioners' already not-so-modest $91, 966 annual salary, and you're pretty close to the six-figure range.

There's no question Hillsborough is a big old county. Town hall forums and neighborhood meetings and such can take politicians far and wide, out to Brandon, down to Ruskin, over to Town 'N Country.

(Hey, they may be traveling even more with the arrival of Peter Aluotto, the county's new director of planning and growth management, who says he wants to make getting approval to build around here even faster. More homes! More neighborhoods! More places to go and constituents to visit!)

Well, anyway.

Commissioner Brian Blair says his travels are so extensive that if he exercised the option to get the county's 48.5 cents a mile instead, it would cost more.

Here's the problem.

Since none of the commissioners report their mileage amounts - which is how commissioners in Pinellas get paid for county travel, by the way - there's no way to know who's going how far on the taxpayers' dime.

Don't taxpayers deserve to know?

New-to-the-commission Rose Ferlita says she was surprised to find out about the perk.

"I thought, 'Dang, $600 a month, ' " she said. "I just thought that was pretty high."

"We all talk about, 'Well, let's tighten our belts, ' " she said. "Well, let's tighten our belts."

Maybe, in the end, county residents are better off giving commissioners a flat amount rather than write-it-down mileage. Maybe they're at least breaking even.

Ferlita says she plans to start recording where she goes to see just that.

"You have to at least show the public it's justified, " she said.

In the spirit of, say, car pooling when times get tough, maybe her fellow commissioners could do the same.