Allegheny County Council wants to hike members’ $3K expense accounts
Allegheny County Council members differ on whether commuting Downtown to the County Courthouse for meetings is a legitimate use of their $3,000 expense accounts, as they prepare to debate whether to increase the amount they can spend on miles, meals, supplies, computers and other expenses.
Taxpayers reimbursed council members more than $39,000 for expenses between Jan. 1, 2013, and Oct. 31, a Tribune-Review study of expense reports showed. Driving to and from the courthouse accounted for 21 percent of that, more than $8,300.
“As long as it’s legal, I think they should get it because they don’t make that much,” council President John DeFazio, D-Shaler, said about commuting expenses.
Miles logged while driving to other events and a monthly stipend for cellphones accounted for 16 percent each, about $6,300 for each category. Council members spent nearly $3,400 on phones, computers or tablets, which they can keep when they leave office, and $4,000 on meals.
“From time to time, I take community leaders and other people interested in government out to a good meal, an expensive meal at a nice place,” said Councilman Bill Robinson, D-Hill District, who had the largest restaurant tab among council members, spending more than $1,700 during the past two years, including a $438.17 dinner in May at the Capital Grille for the POISE Foundation Board of Trustees.
“I believe the constituents and the people that I am talking to deserve to eat and deserve to eat well,” Robinson said.
He and his dinner guests discuss county business while dining, he said.
Other combined expenses included more than $200 spent on candy for parades and celebrations; nearly $6,000 for legal reviews of the lease that allows drilling for natural gas under Deer Lakes Park; and $185 on printer ink.
Some members, including Robinson, drain their $3,000 expense accounts before the end of the year. Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, who spent $3,000 last year and has run out of money this year, proposed increasing the amount members can spend.
“I didn’t take this position to get rich,” Macey said. “All we’re asking for is just to be compensated for being a good public servant.”
Freshman Councilman Tom Baker, R-Ross, asked council staff to stop reimbursing him for miles logged to and from the courthouse, a 20-mile round trip.
“Getting to work, I’ve always thought, is on us,” Baker said.
Baker said $3,000 for expenses is enough and he would vote against increasing the limit.
Members make $450 for each council meeting they attend and can earn up to $9,000 a year. Their spending accounts, a separate $3,000, are intended to cover costs encountered “in the performance of their official duties,” according to the county’s Home Rule Charter.
Six council members did not ask for reimbursements for driving to or from the courthouse: Republicans Jan Rea, Ed Kress and Heather Heidelbaugh and Democrats Robinson, Amanda Green-Hawkins and DeFazio, who has served on council since 2000. DeFazio declined the annual $9,000 stipend and has not used his expense account until recently.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a councilman from 2000 to 2011, when he resigned to run for county executive, would support increasing the expense account limit, which was set in 1998 and has not changed, said county spokeswoman Amie Downs. Neither Fitzgerald nor Downs would comment on council’s use of the expense accounts.
County Controller Chelsa Wagner, whose office is auditing the county’s vehicle fleet and take-home vehicle policy, said that even though council members do not make much money, they should not be allowed to expense driving to the courthouse. It doesn’t make sense, she said.
“It would be in the best interest of Allegheny County, period, where we don’t cover travel for any of our employees to get to and from work,” Wagner said.
Macey does not consider driving to the courthouse for meetings to be commuting to work. He said the courthouse is just one of many places council members are asked to work. Many expenses are not accounted for or reimbursed, Macey said.
Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee, where Macey’s bill to increase the expense accounts waits, led council members with about $1,600 reimbursed for driving to and from the courthouse. It helps make up for what he considers a low stipend of $9,000 a year, he said.
“As a public servant, I don’t think you should pay out of your own pocket,” he said.
Aaron Aupperlee is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or [email protected].