CLEARWATER — The city pays more than $91,000 a year in car allowances to 21 of its highest-paid employees, a perk that has survived even as officials cut dozens of rank-and-file jobs.
The employees get an average of $350 a month in car allowance on top of their salaries, which average about $103,000.
The employees, mostly directors working at the Municipal Services Building or City Hall, are not asked to track their travel.
Clearwater's $91,000 for car allowances dwarfs nearly all Tampa Bay governments, with one exception: St. Petersburg, where 141 employees get $201,000 a year in car allowances. St. Petersburg's perks were the subject of a recent St. Petersburg Times story.
But Clearwater's car allowances stand out because of the amount paid per person. St. Petersburg's monthly allowances range from $49 to $200, while Clearwater's range from $250 to $600. City Manager Bill Horne's allowance nets him $20 a day on top of his $160,000 annual salary.
It was Horne's idea, in 2003, to offer the allowances to department heads as a way to stay competitive with private employers.
"It's all about recruiting and retaining high-quality people," Horne said. "And that requirement is the same, no matter the economy."
The allowances, he said, remain important even as the city prepares to cut 28 positions in the fire department, maintenance, police dispatch and other departments, a draft budget shows. Sixteen of the 28 were employees who shifted to other city jobs; the remainder retired, left or were laid off.
Over the last five years, 278 positions, or 14 percent of Clearwater's peak work force, has been slashed as tax revenues declined because of falling property values.
The budget, Horne said, is not "so austere" that officials would need to consider trimming the allowances. "We have reached a point where we're all comfortable with the reduction in revenue," he said.
Though they did not set most of the allowances, current City Council members defended them as crucial to employees' contracts. Mayor Frank Hibbard called them "a matter of retention."
Vice Mayor George Cretekos was not so convinced. He said the council should pay more attention to staff payouts, adding that the allowances would be a topic during budget hearings next month.
"The environment has changed. The budgetary restraints on the city have become a little bit more pronounced," Cretekos said. "We have to make sure we can attract the very best. But there are other ways I think we could do that."
At a total of $91,800, Clearwater's car allowances top those of local governments with bigger jurisdictions. Hillsborough County pays out $90,564 a year; Pinellas, $18,000; Pasco, $10,800. Tampa pays $12,600 a year in car allowances to its seven City Council members and provides 20 officials with city-funded take-home cars.
Clearwater tops the car allowances of all North Pinellas cities — combined. Largo pays $26,000 to 11 employees. Dunedin pays $25,000 for nine employees, including $500 a month to City Manager Rob DiSpirito.
Tarpon Springs gives $18,000 a year to five officials and take-home vehicles to its city manager, police and fire chiefs. Safety Harbor pays $3,600 a year for City Manager Matthew Spoor and for the fire chief's take-home truck. Oldsmar pays $3,600 a year in car allowances for its leisure services director; four other administrators drive city take-home cars.
Besides allowances, Clearwater also pays for the purchase, fuel and maintenance for 146 cars and trucks that police, fire and Gas System employees can take home. They are asked to keep personal drives to a minimum but do not have to track their mileage or use.
Police Chief Anthony Holloway drives a 2011 Ford Taurus. The fire chief and eight division and assistant chiefs drive a fleet of Chevy Suburbans, Ford Crown Victorias and GMC Yukons.
Employees with allowances do not have to submit mileage or prove they are putting the money toward travel on city business. Twenty-five employees who have take-home cars, many of them police officers, refund the city a 29-cents-per-mile "commuter fee" for living outside a 15-mile radius of the city.
When asked what would happen if the allowances were reduced, human resources director Joe Roseto said, "How would you feel if somebody cut your pay?"
"They're human beings. They're going to have a reaction to that," said Roseto, whose car allowance is $350 a month. "Will it affect their jobs? Probably not."
Horne said the allowances have proved their worth by keeping turnover among his senior managers at "virtually zero." Without the allowances, he said, the city could lose top talent.
"Our taxpayers want the city to have competent employees, and to know they're well led," Horne said. "I feel like we're getting every penny of work the city is paying for."
Times staff writers Keyonna Summers, Lorri Helfand and Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.