Despite looming fiscal problems and discussion of new taxes, Philadelphia City Council members have billed taxpayers $320,970 for a fleet of 13 brand-new SUVs – a perennially questioned perk some pols say they can’t live without.
Philadelphia is one of a handful of major cities whose council members cruise around in their own taxpayer-funded rides. Fringe benefits include free insurance, maintenance, and, best of all, unlimited gas at any of the 60 municipal filling stations scattered around town.
Fleet records obtained by Philly Weekly through a right-to-know request indicate some council members spend a lot more time behind the wheel than others – in new whips, to boot.
Over a year ago, City Council quietly received a scheduled fleet upgrade of new 2017 Chevy Equinoxes, a $24,690-a-pop compact SUV now driven by 13 city lawmakers. Fuel records show most vehicles consumed 300 to 600 gallons of gas last year, which is on par with the average American car owner.
But some council members are going above and beyond, ostensibly in the name of the job.
Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell pumped more than any of her colleagues, chugging 1,294 gallons of gas last year. Reached by phone, Blackwell, who lives in her West Philadelphia district, maintained that she only used the car for work-related affairs in the city.
“I work seven days a week,” she said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
If her 2017 Equinox clocks 21 miles per gallon in urban settings, as its manufacturer advertises, the six-term councilwoman used enough fuel to put 27,000 miles on the odometer. That’s about 74 miles per day.
The second-busiest driver was Councilwoman Cherelle Parker, who clocked 956 gallons on her Equinox last year – enough to drive, at minimum, 20,000 miles annually, or 55 miles a day. Parker’s office said she uses the vehicle to travel to and from her City Hall office, attend meetings and provide other in-person constituent services.
“Several of these engagements require her to travel outside of the city or outside the state,” a spokesperson for Parker said.
Last year, the first-term councilwoman drove to several neighborhood-related conferences in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. She also took a trip to New York City in December to attend the Pennsylvania Society, an annual booze-and-schmooze pageant for state politicians and the lobbyists who want their ears.
Records indicate Parker’s new Equinox received a $3,485 city-funded repair charge following an auto accident last May. A spokesman said the councilwoman’s vehicle was hit while traveling in her district, and that a police report was filed.
As a state representative in 2011, Parker caught a DUI in her Commonwealth-owned vehicle and later lost her license. Several years prior, her former chief of staff was sued after allegedly crashing Parker’s state-owned vehicle into a Sunoco station with Parker in the passenger seat, court records show. The case was later tossed out on appeal.
All told, gas and maintenance for City Council’s fleet cost about $46,000 last year. It’s small change in terms of a big-city budget. But in past election cycles, fiscal watchdogs have loudly taken issue with individual legislators over their use of the work vehicles.
Some said former Mayor Michael Nutter drove a wedge between his office and Council during 2009 budget negotiations when he asked lawmakers to shoulder the city’s fiscal burden and hand over their keys. After taking office in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney followed through on a campaign promise to ban parking on the City Hall apron – a long-held entitlement for Council and their staffs. But Kenney, a former councilman himself, has steered clear of his colleagues’ beloved benefit. He has no plans to bring it up during the ongoing budget negotiations this year, a mayoral spokesman confirmed.
A 2011 Pew Charitable Trusts study found that out of 15 city councils surveyed nationwide, Philadelphia was one of just three municipalities to allow the perk. Other cities instead give legislators auto allowances and other reimbursements.
Yet even first-term City Council members claim they can’t live without it.
“I don’t count it as a perk – I count it as an extension of the office,” said first-term Councilman Al Taubenberger, who was the third-highest gas consumer among his peers. “I couldn’t do my job as a city councilman without the vehicle.”
Taubenberger argues at-large Council members like himself are ombudsmen for the entire city. But fleet data shows no pattern between district and at-large legislators when it comes to gas consumption. Taubenberger clocked nearly 900 gallons last year, while his first-term colleague, Councilwoman Helen Gym, used the least fuel out of any of her colleagues – just 218 gallons. Ditto for district legislators: Councilman Kenyatta Johnson used 1,000 gallons of gas less than his colleague, Blackwell. Council also retains three older-model pool vehicles for general use, which consumed between 90 and 350 gallons of gas in that period.
Three council members – Allan Domb, Bobby Henon and Mark Squilla – continued to do their job without city-owned vehicles.
When the Office of Fleet Management offered to replace City Council’s last convoy of vehicles – 2008 or later model-year SUVs and sedans – Council President Darrell Clarke was the only one who opted out; records show he still drives a 2015 Chevy Tahoe.
“He didn’t want a new car because his used car works perfectly well, save the occasional problem that needs fixing,” Clarke’s spokesperson wrote in an email.
Councilman Brian O'Neill has gone back and forth with his government car over the years. After years without one, he opted in on the new fleet last year – and used 647 gallons of gas. But O’Neill is getting ready to turn his latest car in again, citing the tax that he still pays on gas mileage.
Philly Council members earn annual salaries of $130,000 or more. Their tax returns, however, will show higher incomes if they drive a city-owned vehicle. According to the Office of Fleet Management, both the value of the car and the municipal gasoline are considered fringe benefits – and taxable at 5.5 cents per mile driven.
Living in his district in far Northeast Philadelphia, O’Neill said the work vehicle complicates his schedule too much, forcing him to separate personal and professional errands while zooming around town.
“You have to be really careful and that's where it gets cumbersome,” he said.