As he struggles to close a $67 million budget gap, Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced a measure Thursday that likely will reduce the number – and cost – of taxpayer-subsidized take-home cars for city employees.
The policy, which sets a residency requirement and requires on-call employees to really be called into work sometime, will result in more than 100 employees losing their city cars, Landrieu’s top lieutenant said.
As of May 24, 185 employees enjoyed the perk of an official car, along with city-paid gasoline and maintenance. (download the Excel spreadsheet or pdf). That’s down 20 vehicles from the 205 taken home in the final days of Ray Nagin’s administration. The information on who has a car was released to The Lens in response to a public records request; it does not include vehicles issued by the police or fire departments.
“A take-home vehicle is a tool for folks to use in effectively carrying out their jobs,” said Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin, who drafted the new policy. “A take-home vehicle is not a perk for upper management; it’s not for people who don’t need one. The city is in a financial position that we just can’t afford to do those sorts of things anymore.”
The savings might not make a substantial dent in this year’s projected budget shortfall, but it will contribute. Former Inspector General Robert Cerasoli said in a December 2008 report that the city could save nearly $1 million by eliminating the perk all together.
Under the new policy, effective Aug. 3, no one living more than 40 miles from the workplace can get a take-home car. No mileage limit is now in place. Six employees with a city car now live farther than that, with two making a 120-mile round trip from home to work.
The policy also tightens the requirement that employees use the car to respond to emergencies around the clock. It now says that the employee not simply be on call, but actually get called in on occasion.
City law requires that the employee use the car to perform a critical city service.
In addition to the cuts for employees who don’t meet the requirements, those employees who live between 20 miles and 40 miles from their workplace will be subject to a monthly fee of $300. That’s three times the amount of cash these employees would have paid under the existing policy. Those who live fewer than 20 miles from work will pay the current rate of $100 a month.
“City employees have paid a modest amount to help offset the cost, but that offset is not differentiated based on how far you live,” Kopplin said in an interview Thursday evening. “If you’re driving 60 miles to and from work each way, we were charging you the same thing. And we don’t think that’s appropriate.”
The new policy will “absolutely” save the city money, Kopplin said.
“This will reduce the number of take home cars, it will reduce our fuel costs, it will reduce liability in terms of the number of accidents we have, just because you are going to minimize use,” he said.
The police department likely will face cuts as well, Kopplin said. Officers who live 20 to 40 miles outside of their workplace and who get called in outside of their regular hours will be eligible for a take-home car, but they’ll have to pay the same fee as any city employee; those who are not frequently called outside of their shift will lose cars. Any officer who lives more than 40 miles away will lose take-home car privileges.
Officers who live within Orleans Parish do not have to be called in frequently to have a take-home car, in hopes that police cars will serve as a crime deterrent in neighborhoods, Kopplin said.
By Aug. 3, the administration will have an estimate of how many vehicles will be turned in. But it’s likely more than 100 employees will lose their cars, Kopplin said.
The policy also requires each driver to keep a log of how many miles are driven for business use and how many miles for personal use. The policy points out that personal use of a take-home car is subject to IRS regulations as a taxable fringe benefit.
Cerasoli’s report suggested that the city could save in the first year $3,400 for every car removed from take-home service.
Landrieu issued a moratorium on giving out new take-home cars when he took office, and he cut back at least one car in each department. Only the mayor and Deputy Mayor Lt. Col Jerry Sneed, who had a car in the Nagin administration, have such vehicles now.
Until last summer, city law limited the number of non-emergency take-home vehicles to 60, a limit that Nagin did not observe. After Cerasoli’s report detailed the number and suspect uses of take-home cars, the City Council responded by lifting the cap.