When then-Gov. George Ryan needled Naperville Mayor George Pradel years ago about the old city police car he drove to a local event, the veteran suburban official was humbled.
"He said, 'Is that the best the city can do for you?'" Pradel recalled recently. "He was driving a new SUV. He was just chiding me. But I felt bad because I had this old police car."
Despite layoffs and fee hikes at the fifth largest city in Illinois, Pradel was given the keys this budget year to a $27,110, 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid. Taxpayers also pay for gas and maintenance, budgeted at $384 a month.
Pradel is one of eight mayors out of 89 North, West and Northwest suburbs, or 9 percent of those reviewed by the Daily Herald, who receive a take-home car or a monthly transportation stipend that are not specifically tied to the amount of driving done for work.
The review is part of the Daily Herald's "Driving on Your Dime" series that found school districts and municipalities collectively spending more than $1.2 million on such perks for top officials even as they laid off workers, raised taxes or fees or cut services in the economic downturn.
Many of those receiving the benefits say they are fair compensation for their work, whether or not directly tied to the amount of driving they do for the taxpayers.
While the dollars involved are minimal when taken as part of a multimillion dollar municipal budget, watchdog groups say the spending goes overboard in many cases.
Civic Federation President Laurence Msall, who studies government spending, said it is questionable that so many suburbs can go without providing cars but a few do not.
Mayors in Naperville, Aurora, Inverness, Streamwood and Hoffman Estates have take-home cars; mayors in Volo, Schaumburg and Palatine receive stipends.
None of those mayors have had such perks cut due to municipal budget troubles, according to those municipalities.
Yet Elgin Mayor Ed Schock, whose salary is $15,000 a year, drives his own car and pays for his own gas around town. He said he only submits for mileage reimbursement if he drives to the state Capitol in Springfield.
"It is just the way it is," Schock said, adding that anything more would be "just unnecessary."
The Better Government Association says some justified arguments can be made about certain employees receiving take-home cars or sizable transportation stipends, but mayors are in a different position, having sought election to the job.
"The taxpayers have a right to demand an end to these perks," said BGA lead investigator Mark LaMet. "The gravy train days are over."
The perks for some mayors come as private businesses are cutting back on the amounts of stipends and the types of employees who are getting them. What used to be a standard part of an executive's compensation package is increasingly limited to those who drive for a living, like salespeople.
Mayor Pradel's car came at a time the city was struggling with one of the biggest budget shortfalls in DuPage County. Naperville laid off 22 workers this year, cut 27 positions, added a $2-a-month fee on garbage collection and raised the local gas tax 2 cents per gallon. Assistant City Manager Bob Marshall said cuts also were made to the city's take-home fleet by replacing fewer vehicles.
Pradel, whose salary is $28,533 a year, said it was the city council that decided to give him the new car, a 2010 hybrid Ford Escape, this winter. Before that, he said, he had been driving a driving a 2003 Chevy Impala since approximately 2004.
Pradel figures he drives around a lot more than other mayors to meetings, grand openings and other events.
"That is Naperville's car and everyone knows it," he said. "I attend every grand opening that there is ... I work 50 to 80 hours a week."
Marshall said council members "wanted to make sure the mayor was in a safe car" because the older one had more than 100,000 miles on it.
He said the car is a good use of taxpayer dollars and the city has tried to "make it as cheap as we can" with the car. Most of the suburbs providing take-home cars or stipends to mayors have been struggling to stay in the black while keeping up with emergency and public works services.
In Schaumburg, officials instituted a property tax for the first time in village history to cover this year's budget, bringing in nearly $24 million. That came in addition to eliminating more than 100 positions through attrition over the last several years.
Schaumburg Mayor Al Larson receives a stipend of $693 a month, which comes to about $8,316 a year on top of his $19,378 salary.
Larson's stipend remains the same no matter how many miles he drives on village business. If he was reimbursed based on the standard federal rate of 50 cents a mile, he would have to drive 1,386 miles a month - roughly the same as traveling from Schaumburg to Tampa - to equal the $693 stipend.
Larson, mayor since 1987, said he doesn't know exactly how the stipend or its size came about. He said he travels around the suburbs in his role as mayor to attend Illinois Municipal League meetings and other gatherings.
"I think it is a fair use of funds," Larson concluded.
Freshman Palatine Mayor Jim Schwantz said his village has "cut wherever we could cut." He eliminated a $10,000 travel budget in the mayor's office as the village laid off 11 employees.
Schwantz, though, said his monthly transportation stipend of $525 - or $6,300 a year - on top of his $15,000 salary, is justified given the amount of driving he does for government business.
Yet, Schwantz said he isn't sure if submitting mileage reimbursements would save the village money. At the standard 50-cent rate, he would have to drive more than 1,000 miles a month to cost taxpayers more than his $525 stipend.
Schwantz got rid of the previous mayor's take-home car, considering the stipend "the best route for me and for the village."
The few suburbs reviewed by the Daily Herald that do provide a mayoral transportation benefit seemed to prefer to buy a car as opposed to paying out monthly stipends.
Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner, whose annual salary as the full-time mayor and city manager is $111,841, drives a 2008 Ford Escape that cost $23,715. Gas and maintenance is covered by the taxpayers. Aurora spokeswoman Carie Anne Ergo said the mayor travels extensively in his dual, full-time role.
Aurora balanced its budget for this year by convincing Weisner and more than 300 employees to forgo their usual salary increases, including a freeze for high-ranking firefighters. Ergo said the city also reduced its purchase of new cars from an average of eight a year to just one last year.
Hoffman Estates Mayor Bill McLeod, who had a salary of $47,272 in the last budget year, drives a 2005 Ford Crown Victoria that cost $20,440 a half decade ago. Taxpayers cover his gas and maintenance.
McLeod says mayors have been given take-home cars in the village since the 1970s.
Hoffman Estates laid off four police officers and negotiated a deal with the firefighters' union to forgo members' annual pay raise to balance this year's budget.
Despite budget cuts throughout the village, McLeod says he doesn't see his car as an excess.
"This is part of the arrangement," he said. "I go to an awful lot of meetings. I go to Springfield. I go all over the place."
Streamwood Mayor Billie Roth didn't return repeated calls from the Daily Herald about her silver 2007 Chevy Impala that cost $21,309. Her gas and maintenance also is paid by taxpayers, according to Village Manager Gary O'Rourke.
O'Rourke declined to discuss the six-term mayor's take-home car other than to say it was authorized by trustees more than a decade ago and that it is "part of the compensation for the village president," which includes a salary of $8,400 a year.
Streamwood left eight positions vacant this year as officials sought to balance the village's budget.
Inverness and Volo may be in the best financial position of all the suburbs reviewed to provide take-home cars or stipends.
Volo Village President Burnell Russell, who says he has not made cuts or raised taxes, has no salary other than his $1,000-a-month transportation stipend.
"It is just the way my wages were put together," said the 81-year-old. "I don't know why we did it that way and I was here, so I should know."
Inverness Mayor Jack Tatooles said his $22,000, 2009 Ford Explorer is justified because the wealthy suburb encompassing 55 miles of roads has no public works department.
"I'm the guy who goes out and puts up barricades," Tatooles said.
All mayors with take-home cars said they track personal miles and pay taxes on them as required by the IRS.
Daily Herald staff writer Kerry Lester contributed to this report.
Ride: Watchdog group says taxpayers have right to demand end to perks
Here is a look at eight suburban mayors who receive take-home cars or stipends to cover transportation costs.
|Naperville||George Pradel||'10 Ford Escape||$27,110|
|Aurora||Tom Weisner||'08 Ford Escape||$23,715|
|Inverness||Jack Tatooles||'09 Ford Explorer||$22,000|
|Streamwood||Billie Roth||'07 Chevy Impala||$21,309|
|Hoffman Estates||Bill McLeod||'05 Ford Crown Vic||$20,440|
Source: Daily Herald research