And frankly, taxpayer-funded cars for city employees is one of those "third rail" issues of concern to taxpayers fretting about expanding city budgets.
Back in 2004, 400 cars were cut from the city fleet, and a car-sharing service was introduced as an innovative way to control costs. Then, in his first year in office, Mayor Nutter cut 307 more cars from the city. City cars can be a huge expediture, since they can cost $20,000 each plus $1,000 a year in maintenance. So cutting fleet is a big bang-for-the-buck budget move. It also sends a powerful message of frugality, which is also why some lawmakers refuse to take full-time city cars they may be entitled to.
According to reports, the Council cars that were used without authorization are part of the three city cars available for use by Democratic Council members and their staff. The Republican minority and their staffs get one car to share, and 11 of the 17 Council members have city cars for themselves. We don't know if this number is significantly fewer than in the past.
One issue is that Council's own budget is so opaque that such a record of past expenses isn't available. We've argued in the past for greater transparency and scrutiny of Council's budget. Council, after all, grills each department of the city on its use of taxpayer funds, but no one gets to scrutinize Council's budget. And Clarke vowed to make the budget more transparent back in March when he took over leadership of Council, though he was short on details. His office said that Council's budget was posted on its website, though it apparently didn't make it through a site redesign.
But more budget transparency is critical for the city as a whole, not just Council. For example, the budget for all city-owned cars come under the Fleet Management office and are not ascribed to any of the departments who actually use them. This is not exactly transparent accounting. How can departments be held accountable for spending and saving if not all of their expenses show up on their individual budgets?
Employee-benefits costs are another big expense that doesn't show up on individual budgets.
Fortunately, the city is working on transforming its budgeting process so that such spending will be more accurately reflected in departmental budgets. This is an important move. Until it happens, though, no clear picture of any department's fiscal performance is truly possible. And that includes City Council.