CLEARWATER — Bowing to public backlash, city leaders say they're cutting car allowances for top officials — a perk that cost the city $90,000 a year.
What will taxpayers save? Nothing. That's because those executives will still receive the pricey stipends as part of their total pay.
The symbolic move is aimed at quieting criticism stoked last year amid a plummeting budget and dozens of cuts to police, fire and other city departments.
But unlike in St. Petersburg, where car allowances were replaced by reimbursement for mileage and saved thousands, Clearwater won't save a cent. In fact, the 20 officials who will have their car allowance folded into their salary stand to earn extra next time they get a raise, because the base pay on which the raise will be calculated will be higher.
In explaining the change away from a formal car allowance, City Manager Bill Horne said, "The public is just not as tolerant for that kind of way of compensating employees, so there's no reason to maintain it."
But eliminating the allowances outright, he added, would be an unfair cut in compensation.
Given to the city's highest-paid officials — whether they traveled for work or not — Clearwater's car allowances averaged $350 a month per person, the Tampa Bay Times reported in August.
The $91,800 Clearwater spent last year on the perk was higher than the car allowances of all North Pinellas cities combined, and even topped similar perks in Tampa and Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.
In 2003, Horne pushed for the perks as a way to reward top executives and keep the city competitive.
Over the years, he became the perk's top beneficiary. His $600-a-month car allowance is one of the highest in Pinellas County, and three times more than St. Petersburg's city administrator received.
After critics, including Mayor George Cretekos, questioned whether the environment was right for such a benefit, city leaders discussed folding the allowance into salaries.
Staff told the City Council about the change this week because budget talks are coming up, Horne said. The change-in-name-only will begin in October.
St. Petersburg leaders announced a similar elimination of car allowances in February, but theirs came with a potential for savings.
Cutting out car allowances and instead paying 44 cents per mile, mileage reports showed, could shave 40 percent off that city's allowance spending, or about $50,000 a year.
Clearwater's car allowance, Cretekos said, was "excessive," but he agreed with Horne that an outright elimination would hurt city staff.
"You never want to penalize your employees if you can help it," Cretekos said. "This is a fair compromise."
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