A local news story raised concerns over the amount of taxpayer money in Yonkers that subsidizes free cars for various city officials. Let’s take a brief look at the facts around this controversial benefit program.
Recently, David McKay Wilson published an article outlining various traffic violations incurred by City Council Member Corazón Pineda-Isaac using both her private and her city-provided vehicle. Pineda-Isaac asserts that any and all fines have been, or will be, paid privately–not with taxpayer dollars. However, this exposé sparked conversation about how this program operates throughout Yonkers government.
The difference between vehicles
It is important to distinguish between what types are cars we are examining. The COY fleet is massive with over 1,053 vehicles in total. This includes everything from dump trucks and snow plows to “take home” vehicles operated 24/7 by certain officials. Most fleet vehicles are marked with the seal of the City of Yonkers, like the small white code enforcement cars with the blue city seal on the doors. But, the cars at issue here are the unmarked cars only having a custom Yonkers government license plate. Of those, there are estimated to be only a few dozen.
Who gets these take home cars?
The use of complimentary cars–with accompanying gas–is ubiquitous amongst senior city officials. While the total number of take-home cars has reportedly lessened over the years, numerous government workers still receive this fringe benefit at taxpayer expense.
For many officials, transportation is essential in case of emergencies. For example, during a crisis situation commissioners from YPD, YFD, and DPW may be called at all hours of the day or night. Having take-home cars ensures that they can be where they need to be. However, nearly all commissioners and many others in leadership roles are awarded the city cars just the same.
Furthermore, all seven members of the City Council members get this perk as well. Notably, just one council member refuses their allotted car–Anthony Merante–who never shies away from touting this decision.
Beyond the City Council, the mayor also benefits from free transportation. In addition to being provided a Ford Taurus, the mayor often gets transported by a Yonkers Police Department security detail. A statement from the mayor’s office indicated that an officer from the Intel Division “accompanies the Mayor, provides protection and transportation as needed.”
The boundaries of travel
The city charter states that, “no City vehicle shall be used other than on City business.” It iterates that these vehicles shall not exit the city limits, nor be taken home to private residences overnight or on a continuing basis. Violating these restrictions triggers immediate termination of employment, as well as a misdemeanor offense subject to up to $1,000 fine and sixty days imprisonment.
Although, an exception exists for these unmarked cars allocated to elected officials and commissioners. Since these are considered 24/7 positions, they have unfettered access to drive the cars wherever they like. So, if a council member travels to a day job outside of the city, then that is allowed. Though, any tolls incurred during that travel are solely the responsibility of the operator.
Not a totally free ride
Despite personal use of these city cars being allowed, it is not meant to go completely untracked. Forms are filed quarterly by each operator of a take-home vehicle that indicates the total number of non-business days the car was in-use. These days are billed at $3 to the operator akin to a rental fee.
Additionally, the COY finance department is required to report this personal use to the IRS. Per federal guidelines, business vehicles used for personal travel constitutes a taxable fringe benefit.
Insurance and gas
The Corporation of the City of Yonkers is self-insured. Meaning, no outside commercial insurance covers these city vehicles, so any liabilities are calculated into the city’s budget. Being self-insured allows the government to set its own policies around use.
As for gas, city vehicles enjoy a liberal, but monitored, policy. These city cars can fill up at municipal fueling stations (e.g. a police precinct) with just a swipe of the operator’s City of Yonkers ID badge. Alternatively, the city uses WEX Fleet Cards to manage refueling at commercial gas stations. All of these vehicles are tracked via GPS and gas reporting on both municipal and WEX accounts is monitored and accessible on-demand. There is no defined limit to the amount of gas a vehicle can consume.
Updating the fleet
The lifespan of these vehicles varies. The City decides to sell a vehicle at auction when the cost of maintenance and repairs are deemed excessive. A cursory survey of officials we spoke with reveals that most take-home cars are fewer than four years old.
While the use of city funds to subsidize transportation is still prevalent throughout city government, there are documented guardrails in place. However, inspection and enforcement of these restrictions does partly rely on the honor system. And even if the totality of government are following these policies to the letter, some taxpaying residents in the city may still prefer their money go elsewhere.