TAMPA — As part of his job with the Salvation Army, Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman gets a free Toyota Camry from the charity for his travels on its behalf.
Norman regularly uses the car for commission business, while collecting a $233 monthly car allowance from the county. The allowance has been as high as $600 in recent years, a lucrative perk until commissioners began chopping it in response to budget shortfalls.
There's nothing legally wrong with accepting the car and allowance, as long as it's reported for tax purposes, said Jim Waters, a partner with the St. Petersburg certified public accounting firm Garcia & Ortiz.
But it seems a little odd that Norman is collecting a car allowance for a vehicle he gets for free from a charity, said Kevin Ambler, Norman's opponent in the District 12 state Senate Republican primary.
"It seems like double-dipping to me," Ambler said.
Attempts to reach Norman this week were unsuccessful. In response to questions, Norman's campaign issued a statement saying he uses the Salvation Army car for charity purposes only, or when he anticipates doing charity business after his county work.
"All county commissioners receive an automobile stipend from the county designed to offset the use of personal vehicles for county business," Norman's campaign spokesperson Sarah Bascom said in a statement. "Mr. Norman openly acknowledges that he receives a company vehicle, a 2006 Toyota Camry, from his employer, The Salvation Army, which prefers to provide an actual company car rather than a stipend.
"When doing strictly county or personal business, Mr. Norman uses one of his personal vehicles. When doing or anticipating doing Salvation Army business, he uses the Salvation Army vehicle provided to him."
Norman's current financial disclosure form lists two personal automobiles, neither of which is a Camry. But he is seldom seen in either vehicle at County Center or while performing other commissioner's duties.
He is regularly seen driving the Camry in and out of County Center before and after commission meetings.
"It's the only car I can ever recall seeing him in," said fellow commissioner Kevin Beckner, a Democrat who has successfully pushed for lowering board members' car allowances.
It's the car he drives to meetings of the Tampa Sports Authority, parking in a lot outside Raymond James Stadium. And his campaign statement doesn't jibe with his own recent depiction of his work with the Salvation Army. In that case, he described himself as largely a weekend troubleshooter who travels the state to address issues that arise.
Last week, Norman was seen pulling into the Tampa Bay Golf and County Club Community Center in San Antonio for a forum before the East Pasco Tea Party Patriots.
An Ambler campaign aide took a photograph because the car was mentioned in a St. Petersburg Times story about Norman's Salvation Army work a few days earlier.
Norman, a commissioner since 1992 now facing a term limit, is seeking the state Senate seat that represents northern Hillsborough and central Pasco counties.
Ambler, also facing a term limit in the Florida House, is seeking to switch chambers. The battle has created one of the more high-profile regional races of the season.
In recent weeks, Norman has faced questions about his wife's 2006 purchase of a waterfront home in Arkansas for $435,000 in cash. Norman has not disclosed the home in financial disclosures and has declined to discuss the purchase, which he said his wife made with investors he won't name.
Both Norman and the Salvation Army were vague on details about what he does in his $95,000-a-year job for the charity. A Salvation Army representative declined to comment for this story, saying it would issue a statement about Norman today.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]