A Perk That Needs to Die | Bleader

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Perk That Needs to Die

Posted By on 07.20.09 at 06:48 PM

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CTA chief Richard Rodriguez is laying down the law: employees are no longer going to get to drive around in cars paid for by taxpayers unless—get this—it’s for agency business.
I'm wondering if anyone else will follow his lead.

From now on, Rodriguez told the Sun-Times, CTA employees who want to drive a car home or use it to run errands will actually have to pick up the tab themselves. “We're offering them the opportunity to continue doing their jobs and doing them well, but they'll have to share in the costs.”

This makes sense, especially since the CTA is in bad budget shape. Then again, the authority has been struggling to make ends meet for years, yet somehow this little perk was allowed to continue even when past presidents Frank Kruesi and Ron Huberman threatened drastic service cuts to balance the budget.

But there’s little need to single out the CTA. Some Chicago aldermen pay for cars and gas out of their expense accounts, which are funded out of the city budget, which of course is funded by you and me.
And as I wrote last year, scores of employees of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District also get to drive around in taxpayer-financed cars when they’re off work. Among them are the nine elected commissioners on the district’s board, who don’t have even have to pay for gas as long as they fill up at one of the district's pumps.

The practice hasn’t ended since I last reported on it. In fact, records show that three commissioners received new vehicles last year: commissioner Debra Shore upgraded from a Ford Crown Vic to a Ford Escape, Kathleen Meany replaced her 2004 Crown Vic with a 2008 model, and Cynthia Santos traded in her Ford Explorer for a Jeep Cherokee. Except for the Escape, which is a hybrid, the cars are all gas guzzlers. The Cherokee, for instance, averages about 12 miles a gallon, according to the U.S. government.

As it happens, water rec board president Terry O’Brien is mulling a run for the Cook County board presidency on a platform of “new energy” and fiscal discipline. He rips Todd Stroger and his county board allies for increasing the payroll after imposing a sales tax last year. “That’s just the wrong thing,” he told me recently.

O’Brien speaks truthfully when he says that management of the water rec district has improved dramatically over the last 10 to 20 years. It used to be a patronage dumping ground, but he says that its workforce is 70 percent the size it was when he first joined the board in 1989.

Yet he also defends the car perks, saying certain employees have to travel across the county for their work. This is certainly true for commissioners, O’Brien says, because they’re elected at large rather than by particular districts. “They do have meetings, they do have speaking engagements, they do have to be places,” he says.

The problem with this argument is that thousands of the miles they put on their cars have nothing to do with official business, according to their own end-of-the-year estimates on tax forms they submit to the district.
In 2008, only one commissioner—Shore—reported that more than 75 percent of her mileage was business-related. She put her figure above 90 percent; the others’ were as low as 0 percent, for commissioner Gloria Majewski (who also reported 0 percent for 2007). O’Brien himself racked up more than 14,000 miles last year on his 2006 Crown Vic, and just 53 percent was for business use.

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