Amid budget troubles, city manager wants $22K in vehicle allowances for him, other staffers

City Council skeptical about request

CINCINNATI -- Just a few months after he proposed laying off Cincinnati police officers and firefighters, City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. is asking City Council to restore $22,000 in vehicle allowances cut from the budget.

If approved, the allowances would be given to Dohoney, along with the city’s next mayor and 13 other administrative employees.

Vehicle allowances offer employees a set monthly payment to use toward vehicle-related expenses, like gasoline and insurance.

Some City Council members, who first saw the request earlier this week as an item in their finance committee agendas, balked at the proposal.

“Are you kidding me?” asked Councilman Chris Seelbach, when the request was presented to the committee.

Seelbach noted that city government is facing fiscal problems and that some municipal workers have gone without pay raises for six years.

“I just question the judgment of an administration” that would make such a request, he said.

Because of looming deficits, Dohoney last spring proposed a series of cuts for Fiscal Year 2014, which began June 1.

Among the cuts, Dohoney initially proposed laying off 344 workers, including 189 police officers and 80 firefighters.

Ultimately, higher than expected tax revenues in May and June allowed City Council to cancel the layoffs.

Also, although council made $20.4 million in cuts to the municipal budget approved in May, it restored $3.8 million in late July.

Now, City Council is considering more restorations sought by Dohoney, including $22,000 for vehicle allowances.

In the city manager’s office, the allowances would be given to Dohoney, two assistant city managers, communications director, economic development director and environmental programs manager.

Other allowances would be restored for departments heads like the city solicitor, finance director, community development director, city planning director, transportation and engineering director, health commissioner, sewers director and the sewers deputy director.

Lastly, Dohoney proposes restoring a $3,500 vehicle allowance for whoever becomes mayor on Dec. 1. Ex-councilman John Cranley is running against Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls for the job.

Although the amount might not seem like much, some council members think restoring vehicle allowances sends the wrong message to city workers and taxpayers.

“It’s like financial schizophrenia. I’m shocked he would ask,” said Councilman Christopher Smitherman.

“I feel like there is a culture in the city administration of a disconnect about where we really are in financial terms and these types of requests,” Smitherman added.

Dohoney defends the request. Some department heads are given take-home vehicles, and the allowances help create equity between the positions.

“First, it is helpful to understand that roughly a third of directors have take-home cars instead of car allowances, and two, directors are in enterprise funds and therefore didn’t have their car allowances reduced,” Dohoney said.

“Reducing the car allowance for half for the remaining directors, funded out of the General Fund, disproportionally impacted only some and created an inequity,” the city manager added.

City government must offer such benefits to attract the best managers, Dohoney said.

“When we hire department directors, we look across the country,” he said. “This is what other cities offer at this level of management – it is competitive to offer a car allowance to help attract and retain the best and the brightest executive leadership.

“(T)hese car allowances were negotiated as part of compensation packages as part of the hiring process, that is not something you should go back on,” Dohoney said. “It is also cheaper to give an allowance than an actual ‘company’ car, where you have to deal with lease payments or buying.”

Many City Council members, however, are not swayed by his arguments.

“It's time to get rid of car allowances -- all of them,” said Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld.

“City leaders should be motivated by a sense of public service, not by a culture of perks,” Sittenfeld said. “And as citizens across Cincinnati tighten their own family budgets, I think they're right to be outraged that City Hall would put luxuries ahead of basic services.”

The finance committee will next discuss the request at its Sept. 24 meeting.

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