Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Taxpayers Provide Local Government Officials With Gas-Guzzlers

No, that's not an April Fool's Day headline.

Here's the story:

I noticed when reading the minutes of the February meeting of the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission's executive committee that the agency had taken delivery of a 2008 Ford Crown Victoria.

Usually you see those big 'ol Crown Vics - - souped-up with special speed and handling packages - - in law enforcement fleets.

That makes sense, since officers need big cars to catch speeders and haul prisoners.

But in regular, civilian life, where cost is a substantial factor, Crown Vics are joining other big domestic cars as memories of an era that's ending.

Case in point:

New York City cab companies are replacing their Crown Vics with hybrid vehicles to save money, given the price of gasoline.

And you'd think that getting a green fleet in operation would be a priority at SEWRPC, our regional planning agency, where sustainability - - fiscal and environmental - - should be something of a model.

Both to conserve resources, and to save taxpayer money. I mean, why not?

But signs to the contrary have been routine at the Pewaukee-based agency, whose headquarters in an industrial park isn't even on a bus line.

The $6.5 freeway upgrade SEWRPC wrote for the region, with more than $2.7 billion in the ground or about to be committed by state transportation officials, contained no transit extensions or recommendations, and projected usage of our rebuilt and expanded freeway system when gasoline was at $2.30 a gallon, SEWRPC records indicate.

In 2005 dollars.

It would be nice to be able to buy gasoline with three-year-old dollars, and at $2.30 a gallon, that's not what any of us are paying, and it's not what the taxpayers are spending to keep a new Crown Vic on the road, either.

Or another recently-obtained vehicle, a 2007 Chevrolet Impala, itself not known as a gas miser.

I asked the agency for more information, and an email came back, reprinted below, that provided a great deal of information about SEWRPC's fleet.

One highlight:

The assignment of the Crown Vic to contractor - - not fulltime staffer - - Kurt Bauer, the agency's Executive Director Emeritus.

Bauer, who retired as Executive Director in 1996, is a three-quarter-time consultant to SEWRPC earning $6,500 a month, and who also receives an office and a car, according to the agency.

Bauer's major contract duties at SEWRPC include chairing two SEWRPC advisory committees, and serving as County Surveyor, according to the agency.

Now I can see having roomy, heavy vehicles for some of SEWRPC's field work.

And I'm not suggesting that people be squeezed into a minicar.

But c'mon:

Buying relatively low mpg rides for the current Executive Director (Phil Evenson, an '06 minivan), Deputy Director (and '09 Executive Director designee Ken Yunker, the '07 Impala), and Bauer (the '08 Crown Vic - - which gets 18 mpg combined city, highway driving, per the newly-recalibrated federal estimates)?

And other trucks that also really burn gas?

Remember: taxpayers from seven counties pay all SEWRPC's expenses - - Milwaukeans the largest share - - but it doesn't appear if saving money or fossil fuels went into the vehicles' purchase or operation.

Here is the SEWRPC fleet information email, verbatim:

"All Commission vehicles are considered to be available to all employees on an as-needed, sign out basis; consequently, they constitute a pool.

"Certain individuals, including Messrs. Evenson, Yunker, and Bauer, are designated as the primary users and sign-outs need to be cleared with them. To the extent the vehicles are taken home or used for personal use, we follow all IRS regulations.

"The Commission auto pool consists of the following vehicles:

2006 Chrysler Town & Country Primary user - Executive Director

2008 Chevrolet Impala Primary user – Deputy Director

2008 Ford Crown Victoria Primary user – County Surveyor

2007 Chevrolet Suburban Primary user – Field Crew Chief – Wetlands

2000 Chevrolet Silverado Primary user – Field Crew Chief - Surveyor

2003 Ford Taurus No primary user

2004 Ford Freestar No primary user

2006 Chevrolet Silverado No primary user

2006 Dodge Grand Caravan No primary user"

The point is that the SEWRPC mindset still doesn't embrace sustainability.

The only green component of SEWRPC's fleet operation is the color of our money ending up at auto dealerships and gas stations.


James Wigderson said...

As a commenter on my blog, Dad29, pointed out, SEWPRC probably calls them "fleet vehicles" because of the tax implications. It's a perk, not a necessity, and the way they handle this with "primary users" is pretty shady. I wonder how the IRS feels about "primary users."

James Rowen said...

Good questions, Jim/Dad29.