ST. PETERSBURG — Though Mayor Bill Foster calls a monthly car allowance a necessity for his top administrators and managers, he said he'll consider reducing or eliminating it — next year.
"In light of the fact that these employees haven't received a pay increase in three years, I'm not going to take money out of their pocket" this coming year, Foster said. "But I am looking at how car allowances fit into the 2013 budget."
His vow to revisit the perk — which has been in place for at least 22 years — came after the Times reported Sunday that 141 of the city's best paid employees, mostly administrators and managers, get the stipend at a total annual cost of $201,852. The allowances mostly range between $92 and $135 a month and are given to many employees who work at City Hall or downtown's Municipal Services Building, jobs that don't require much driving on the clock.
A majority of City Council members said Wednesday that they think the list should be reviewed now, before next year's budget goes into effect Oct. 1.
While council members can't vote against individual budget items, they do vote on whether to accept or reject Foster's proposed $572 million budget. The final budget vote is scheduled for Sept. 22 to coincide with the last of two public hearings on the budget.
"The only wriggle room he'll have is to kill it," said Council Member Wengay Newton, who has brought up car expenses throughout the year as a way for Foster to trim costs. "It's the only way he can save face."
Council members Leslie Curran, Herb Polson, Bill Dudley, Jeff Danner, Steve Kornell and Karl Nurse said they'd like to review the expense and consider eliminating it for those who don't need it.
"Everything needs to be looked at," said Danner. "If you call it a car allowance, give it to those who use a car. If it's a payroll benefit, then it should be reviewed. Some on the list don't appear to justify it."
"I'm open to look at the list," said Kornell. "We live in a time where sacred cows are imperiled."
Kornell, Newton and Dudley are all up for re-election, during which issues like wasteful government spending can become hot issues. Kornell's opponent, Bill Protz, told the Times editorial board this week the stipend was unnecessary.
"It's a nicety, not a necessity," Protz said. "For (Foster) to defend that is ludicrous."
Foster said starting next year he will decide who keeps the perk by requiring recipients to track their mileage for three months "to see if changes may be warranted."
If the mileage shows they need less money, changes will be made, Foster said. "I want to know who's using their car for city business and for how much," he said.
By 2013's budget year, which begins next October, Foster said he hopes to give those employees a cost of living salary increase that could offset the loss of the stipend. He favors the stipend as a way for top administrators to cover on-the-job auto expenses. He said if the city didn't offer it, employees would leave to work for companies and other governments that did offer it.
Only Council Chair Jim Kennedy said he'd be unwilling to examine the stipend this year.
"I don't have a desire to pull the budget apart on that," Kennedy said. "We're talking about a $200 million (operating) budget, and $200,000 is a small percentage of that. You don't start tearing apart the budget at the back end of the process."
It's unclear how far other council members will go in pushing Foster to drop the perk, which is supported and expected from top administrators who have received it for years.
"I'm not sure this is something I'd go to the mat on," Polson said. "But we have two public hearings left. The story's out there, it will be on people's minds. The mayor opened the door a crack by saying he'd look at it next year. Why not just go ahead, do the study now, and finish it this year?"
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]