ST. PETERSBURG — As Mayor Bill Foster ponders cuts in these times of shrinking budgets, he describes his approach as one that chooses between "needs vs. wants."
Yet Foster's decision to leave intact a perk for top administrators and managers has some City Council members doubting he's that frugal.
The city spends $201,852 a year on car allowances to 141 of city's best-paid employees who are mostly administrators, directors and managers. It's a fringe benefit for upper- and middle-management that larger governments in Tampa Bay don't come close to offering.
The perk has survived in Foster's proposed $572 million budget for next year, which elsewhere eliminates 41 full-time and 18 part-time positions, freezes wages for all employees who aren't firefighters and police, reduces pool and library hours and shifts more costs to residents by hiking recreation fees, charging more for fire code inspections, increasing fines on red-light running motorists and installing more parking meters.
"What's happening is that we're reducing services and yet we still have people who make six figures who have perks like this," said council member Wengay Newton. "Their salaries can pay for their cars. They don't need a perk. We should cut it. That won't take anyone's job away. As cuts go, this is low-hanging fruit. It's practically touching the ground."
While part of the rationale for the auto stipend is that employees who use their cars on the job should be compensated for expenses, a review of the recipients shows numerous employees with desk jobs in City Hall or at the city's Municipal Services Building downtown.
"If we're in a financial bind, who really needs them?" said council member Leslie Curran. "You go through that list and see that there are some who don't use their cars. If they use them, and it's necessary, then I can support that. But if they don't, I don't think we should spend money on them."
Part of the issue for council members, who must approve the budget by October, is that those who get allowances aren't required to show they use their cars on the job.
Council member Herb Polson said the employees should at least fill out forms showing how they use the car for work.
"In tight times, and the number of folks who are getting it, it's logical to ask if it's truly necessary," Polson said. "Let's go down the list and figure out who needs it vs. those who want it."
The city's top administrator, Tish Elston, said the stipend has been in place, at its current amount, for at least 22 years.
"It's not a question of whether the employee wants it," Elston said. "It's a question of are they required to have a car at all times so they could travel to meetings inside or outside the city if they are required to."
Some employees are reluctant to talk about the perk.
Tim Finch, the city's budget and management director, helps Foster frame cuts in the "needs vs. wants" paradigm. He gets $135 a month for his car allowance, or $1,620 a year on top of his $118,013 salary.
When asked, he couldn't fully explain why he needs it to perform his duties at City Hall.
While Finch said he drives his car every day and uses it to attend meetings at various public buildings, he could not recall the last time he had driven to a location other than City Hall.
When asked, as a budget director, whether he'd characterize a car allowance in these economic times as a need or a want, Finch replied: "It's part of my compensation package."
Pressed for an answer to the need vs. want question, Finch said, "I don't have an opinion. It's part of my total compensation package."
Foster defended the car allowances by saying that everyone who gets it, including Finch, uses the cars enough to warrant it.
"This is the same group of people who haven't had a pay increase in three years, not even a cost-of-living expense," Foster said. "This is a group whose household expenses have increased, but they haven't seen an increase in their salary. In this context, I'm competing against private industry and with other cities.
"Is it a need or a want?" Foster said. "In the day-to-day operations of the city, keeping the best people at their post is a need."
Yet most of the city's 1,250 employees who have blue-collar jobs in parks and recreation, sanitation and other jobs, don't enjoy a similar perk, said Rick Smith, who heads the Florida Public Services Union in St. Petersburg. Their wages have also stagnated.
"It's a waste," Smith said of the stipend. "It's over $200,000 the city is spending for a perk for people who don't need it. If you need to give it to them to retain them, let's do that across the board, and give it to the ones who do the actual work."
Smith said the city doesn't risk losing midlevel managers because governments everywhere are shedding workers, not hiring them.
A review of other governments in the Tampa Bay area suggests the perk isn't needed to compete, either. Pinellas County pays the stipend to only two employees, County Administrator Bob LaSala and County Attorney Jim Bennett, each of whom gets $750 a month.
In Pasco, the only two employees to get an allowance are County Administrator John Gallagher and County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder. They get $450 a month.
Hillsborough County spends $90,564 on car allowances for 34 officials who work in a jurisdiction that's 10 times the size of St. Petersburg.
In Tampa, seven City Council members receive $1,800 a year for car allowances, unlike the eight City Council members in St. Petersburg, who don't get compensated. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn drives a used sport utility vehicle provided by the city. Foster drives a city vehicle, which he doesn't take home. About 20 Tampa officials also have take-home cars in addition to the city's police officers.
St. Petersburg provides 357 take-home cars for its police, 18 for fire department officials, and 32 for various officials in departments that require field work, such as codes, billings and collections, and water resources.
While the other governments provided information about car allowances free of charge, St. Petersburg charged the Times $27.34 because officials said it took one hour of staff time to retrieve.
During contract negotiations, the Florida Public Services Union has recommend eliminating the car allowance, a recurring expense every year, as a savings measure, Smith said. So far, however, top officials have refused to consider it, and won't, he said.
"On this and other issues, the city bureaucracy is a rock," Smith said. "It's an inability to change. They have a vested interest in keeping this from getting cut. But in these times, right now, a perk like this isn't necessary."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8037.