Council has blind spot on county driving perk

The headline sounded promising: “County Council lops car credit.” Alas, the reality didn’t deliver.

On Wednesday, the Snohomish County Council voted to reduce a ridiculous stipend for elected officials who drive their own vehicles on county business, rather than to eliminate it entirely. The council cut the stipend, which would have been $587 per month this year, to $264.

New council Chairman Mike Cooper sought to ditch the payments altogether, telling Herald reporter Krista J. Kapralos, “This is one thing we can do that says the council is serious about asking everybody in the county to suffer a little bit to save a few jobs.”

He had that right. Which is why the unanimous vote to only reduce the stipend is forehead-slapping.

To their credit, Cooper and councilman Brian Sullivan intend to follow the example set by prosecuting attorney Janice Ellis and opt out of the stipend. Ellis stopped taking the payment in 2003, when her office was dealing with a budget shortfall.

(Officials can also choose to use a county-owned vehicle, or use their own cars and get reimbursed at the extremely generous federal rate of 58.5 cents a mile.)

Snohomish County faces a $21 million deficit this year. More than 100 county employees have been laid off and the council’s staff will take nine days of unpaid leave this year. If some council members are somehow unconcerned about how the stipend looks to taxpayers, you’d think the specter of their own staff being forced to take unpaid leave would be enough to motivate them to take the cost-cutting action.

(Cooper overstates his case when he said, “If we go to zero (on the vehicle stipend) that would be about 5 percent of our income. We’d feel the same pain that our staff is feeling.” Well, not quite. That 5 percent is on top of your income, and you aren’t taking any days without pay.)

Salaries for county officials range from $94,000 to $140,000. The average worker in Snohomish County makes much less. Regular people would feel like they had won the lottery if they received an extra $587 a month, or $264, regardless of how much they actually drove their car for work. Wow. What a deal.

It’s exactly this kind of “perk” that makes citizens distrustful of government and convinces them that there is always “waste” that can be eliminated. In this case, they couldn’t be more right.

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