Auto perk draws critics

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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A perk in the employment contract of Rocklin’s new Police Chief Ron Lawrence is causing concerns. According to the employment contract, “the city shall provide Lawrence, for his exclusive use, a vehicle for unrestricted business and personal use anywhere within 120 miles of the city.”   Underemployed, concerned Rocklin resident Gary Betz said a car for unrestricted personal use is going too far. “I don’t think they should be using government vehicles for personal use at all, “Betz said. Rocklin City Manager Rick Horst, who negotiated the $164,340 salary plus benefits compensation package, defended the language. “As a 24/7 employee, the police chief is expected to monitor the activities of the police department and be available to respond if necessary to command the department,” Horst said. “That constant on-call status and availability is the public benefit of having the chief use a city car for his primary means of transportation.” Betz is concerned taxpayers will be liable for an accident that may involve family and friends who may be along for the ride. “If he’s out on the road and has an accident then who’s liability does it become?” Betz said. Horst said if the chief is at fault in the accident the city would be liable. “If the city (chief) was at fault, technically our insurance program should pay the bill,” Horst said. If the vehicle qualifies as a “public resource” and the use of it results in “personal gain” it may be a violation of California Government Code 8314. However, Horst said it is lawful under that code. “As a lawful employment contract and a lawful public purpose, there is no unlawful personal use of public property and no violation of Gov. Code 8314,” Horst said. Ted Costa of People’s Advocate, the government watchdog group behind Governor Gray Davis’ recall and Prop 13, said if it is legal it doesn’t mean it’s good for taxpayers. “I think the amount of time he is using the car for personal use he should pay taxes on that,” Costa said. “It should be reported as part of his income. There should be public record of how much of that is personal use.” Marcia Fritz, the president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, said Lawrence should reimburse the city for the value of the personal use. “The auto perk sends the wrong messages to taxpayers, especially for a city that is strapped financially,” Fritz said. According to Horst, first responders are exempt from the IRS reporting requirement. He said he’s also not aware if the city maintains a log of how much time or mileage is deemed personal or business. In fact, the city pays for all of his gas, according to Horst. “The chief fills up at the city fuel site, unless he may be out of the area and unable to do so, and the city would pay for fuel,” Horst said. “He does not pay for fuel.” From July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 former Rocklin Police Chief Mark Siemens’ vehicle logged 8,438 miles; used 511.62 gallons of gas. The average price of gas (city’s cost) per gallon during this time was $2.54 (cost per mile $0.1539), according to the city. While the city may pay different rates for gas than consumers, according to AAA, Wednesday’s average price for regular unleaded in the Sacramento region was $4.16. The city also spent $381.22 in labor and $111.17 in parts to maintain the chief’s vehicle last year. While Horst was responsible for salary negotiations and the ultimate hire, the city council unanimously approved the employment contract April 12. The item was placed on the consent calendar at the meeting and drew no public comment from citizens or the council during the meeting. Costa wants the Rocklin City Council to be an advocate for taxpayers or be voted out. “I hope the citizens of Rocklin in the next election hold that council accountable for what they are doing,” Costa said. Councilman Scott Yuill said the city is working on pension reform, which involves all types of city expenditures including compensation and benefits.  “This issue particularly has been building for 25 or more years with many complexities and it will take level-headed, measured steps and time to correct,” Yuill said. Yuill takes issues with the watchdog groups for not publicly supporting the city’s cost-saving measures. “It’s odd that none of these groups ever seem to take the time to contact government directly and really discuss the issues with the source,” Yuill said. “I fear many of those groups prefer to stir up controversy in the media more than help solve the problems.” -------------- Rocklin Police Chief Compensation Salary: $164,340 • $3,600 annual deferred compensation • $1,200 annual cell allowance CalPERS pension: 3 percent at age 50 • Vehicle for business and personal use • 80 hours of management leave • 6 months pay upon involuntary termination