Last Thursday, lifelong Minneapolis resident (and my sister-in-law) Kim Walsh was watching Fox 9 News, which reported that the Minneapolis City Council was preparing to vote on a "car allowance" for council members. The report told viewers that the $400 monthly maximum stipend is the largest stipend for car expenses in the country for a city council.
Kim, a mother of two who works in downtown Minneapolis, spent the next day ranting to family, friends, neighbors, and at least one frightened woman at her bus stop. She finally sent out this email:
"On February 10th the Minneapolis City Council, on a vote of eight to five, gave themselves a whopping $400 a month each for 'car expenses.' That's $64,000 a year. Meanwhile, our libraries have cut back on staff and hours, the numbers of city police and firefighters have been cut and our property taxes continue to rise like hot air balloons. So why did the council approve this self-serving increase that comes right out of taxpayers' pockets? Did they secretly envy Thandiwe Peebles' Escalade? Do they believe being a shining example of fiscal restraint isn't part of their job description? Or have they inevitably become what nearly all politicians who've been in office for too long become: pigs at the trough?
"Is their yearly salary, which is in excess of $70,000 dollars, not adequate compensation for the tremendous hardship of driving? Are they familiar with the concept of mass transportation, which the rest of us, the great unwashed, use to cut back on expenses? And what's wrong with a simple mileage reimbursement system? Oh wait, got it: That would require record-keeping and accountability and oversight, something our elected officials at every level of government apparently abhor. With this increase, no receipts or records need be kept, and each council member can use the funds at their discretion. This vote should tell us all we need to know about their discretion.
"Your city council has just voted themselves a $4,800 a year raise. Because they can. Because no one's paying attention. Because our piggies want truffles. Snort."
She finished the email by asking all her recipients to contact the city council members who voted for the pay raise, so that's what Blotter did. The three who responded explained that the stipend is for travel expenses on behalf of the city, and traveling needs vary for the various members and spoke of other budgetary hardships and then we dozed off.
"People can take zero or the full 400 dollars, and I guess you just have to trust that that's what they're spending," said Scott Benson (Ward 11), who said he returned $21,000 out of his staff budget to the city last year. "I'm assuming the people who voted against it won't take any, but I've never been in a job where they don't reimburse you for travel expenses."
"My understanding is that some of the council members have spent a great deal of their personal funds driving to city meetings, some of them outside the metro area and some of them back and forth to the state capital," said Diane Hofstede (Ward 3). "Having that option was an important option for them to have."
"It's not additional money, as it's widely being reported," said Ralph Remington (Ward 10). "It's not any additional taxpayer money, it's money that we already have in our budget. I believe (the members) who voted against it did so for political reasons. A lot of people, if you're newer (on the council), tend to be afraid. I don't lead from fear. I don't believe in it. I lead out of conviction and integrity and carefully, and I don't make any decisions based on fear."
Monday morning, Kim Walsh emailed the mayor and every member of the council. The only one who returned her email was Gary Schiff (Ward 9), who wrote: "Hi Kim, Thanks for writing on this topic. While I am not your council member and while I did not vote for this absurd car allowance (nor will I claim it), I wanted to encourage you to write the Mayor. A Mayoral veto could stop this wasteful policy from going into effect."