Special Assignment: The Price of Perks

By: Jonathan Martin
By: Jonathan Martin

October 19, 2006

City gas cards. Your tax money, paying for commissioners to get around.

Some don't use them. Others use them plenty.

This News 12 investigation looks at the rules and who's playing by them when it comes to your cash.

Augusta commissioners are looking to make some big cuts...but the perks in their own budget are not on the list of things to go.

For weeks, News 12's Jonathan Martin has been looking into how the city's budget troubles have commissioners rethinking their policy on gas usage.

Many of you called and emailed us wanting us to look closer at the gas usage policy for city leaders.

We did some digging and found not only is there some confusion about the rules, but despite the tight budget, commissioners are still filling up.

For Augusta city leaders, it's a pretty nice perk: free gas fill ups. Well, not exactly free. You're paying for it.

"I don't think they should get a gas allowance," Augustan William Forensic told News 12. "None of us do, we have to pay our own gas."

Many people feel that way, including some of those who're entitled to the fuel.

"I've never used my gas card myself, and I just think during tight fiscal times, everybody needs to cut back," said Augusta mayor Deke Copenhaver.

The reality is, some commissioners are really pumping this perk, even though the gas is only supposed to be used for city business. Last month we showed you the big bills Marion Williams and Andy Cheek had. Cheek used 136 gallons worth in one month.

Those numbers we revealed prompted Commissioner Joe Bowles to have commissioners review the policy.

Which brought up the question: what is the policy?

The fleet manager told us last month that commissioners were allotted $100 dollars a month. Then the clerk told us it was 125 gallons. So which is right?

"I was incorrect in the $100 a month allocation," fleet manager Ron Crowden told us. "It's actually 125 gallons."

And perhaps there was some confusion about the city's gas policy because it was written back in 1965 when gas was just $0.35 a gallon. Of course, today's prices create an even bigger budget issue.

"So that obviously needs to be updated," Copenhaver said. "As a matter of fact, there was a county physician who was allotted gas based on the policy, and we don't have one of them anymore."

Andy Cheek continues to use the most gas, even though he's missed the most city meetings this year.

So we asked him to tell us what city business is requiring him to fill up so frequently.

"I've got a vehicle, I've put 22,000 miles on it in two years," Cheek said. "I've done very little traveling out of town. On occasion I go with my family. I typically drive all over the city."

But some of his fellow commissioners say it's excessive.

"Do you think a commissioner could use 136 gallons of gas in one month?" we asked.

"I don't see how," said Commissioner Don Grantham. "I really don't."

There's no way for us or the city to track how much traveling is going on, because records show Cheek often enters a random odometer reading when using his Fuelman card.

"If he's overused the allotment, he should reimburse the county for the amount he's overused it," said Commissioner Jerry Brigham.

But there is no payback policy. And while commissioners say they are looking to write some new rules, until they do, the "police yourself" policy remains in place.

"From a fleet manager standpoint, yes I am concerned," Crowden said. "I'm not in a position where I can say it's an excessive amount used."

We're told that in the next few weeks, there will be a new gas policy for commissioners to vote on.

Since our last report, Andy Cheek and Jerry Brigham have both turned in their city phones.

AUGUSTA COMMISSIONERS SEPTEMBER GAS USAGE

Betty Beard

Jimmy Smith

Marion Williams

Andy Cheek

$25.94 (11.5 gallons)

$49.61 (22.8 gallons)

$116.58 (50.8 gallons)

$160.35 (74.2 gallons)

The mayor and other commissioners have not used gas in September.

PREVIOUS STORIES

September 26: Special Assignment: Commissioners Contribute to Budget Deficit

September 19: Commissioner perks add up to $145,000 per year

September 12: Augusta mayor cuts own budget


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