A Prince George's County citizen board recommended on Tuesday that the county abolish generous travel allowances as well as a policy that allows some elected officials and staff to take home government vehicles.
The three-member Vehicle Use Review Board conducted a six-month review and found no other jurisdiction in the region offered benefits like those provided by Prince George's County.
The board's conclusions followed a Washington Post investigation that found the county had spent more than $110,000 in taxpayer money annually on the vehicle benefits for county council members and staff.
Review board chair Jacqueline L. Brown, who declined several previous interview requests, said during the hearing the county should replace the program with a standard mileage reimbursement policy based on the Internal Revenue Service rate used by other governments.
The Post investigation and council review was triggered by a drunken driving crash last November in which council member Mel Franklin (D-Upper Marlboro) destroyed a government vehicle. Franklin injured two people, pleaded guilty and voluntarily enrolled in an interlock device program that prevents a car from starting if a driver has been drinking. A Circuit Court judge sentenced him to probation before judgment. He paid a fine and served no jail time.
The crash put a spotlight on a little-known program that permitted council members and some administrators to access the government's fleet of vehicles for personal and official use. They pumped gas at taxpayers' expense and those who chose to drive their own car received a stipend of more than $10,000 annually, on top of their salaries.
The 2016 crash was also not the first time Franklin and his colleagues had been involved in serious and costly accidents with taxpayer-funded vehicles.
County Council Chairman Derrick L. Davis (D-Mitchellville), who is running for reelection, convened the review board after Franklin's crash, and the board began meeting in March shortly after The Post published its investigation.
At the time, at least five of the nine council members were driving government vehicles and the rest received allowances, including administrator Robert Williams Jr. and auditor David Van Dyke. Since the review, the entire council has relinquished the government vehicles, Davis said. But most of the council still receives the automobile allowance, which is paid biweekly and is equivalent to the average cost of providing a government vehicle to a county employee.
While the vehicle-use review board recommended ending the take-home policy for council members and administrators, it said some officials, such as those who work for the state's attorney and the police and fire departments, should be exempt. The county executive and his security details should continue to drive government vehicles, the review said.
The board also recommended updating the reimbursement rate for mileage from the county government's 36 cents per mile to the IRS rate of 53.5 cents. If adopted, the changes could have implications for next year's budget.
The recommendations will be forwarded to another commission that will also make suggestions about salaries and benefits for the next council, which will include two new at-large members after the 2018 elections.
It is part of a routine charter and compensation review completed every four years by a group of citizens jointly appointed by the council and the county executive. The full council will then vote later this year on whether to implement recommendations that will probably include provisions for mileage reimbursement and automobile allowances.
Council members have complained they are not paid at the same rate as colleagues in comparably sized neighboring governments. The automobile allowance helped bridge that gap, they said.
Council members, who work full-time, are paid about $117,000 a year, and the chairman and vice chairman each receive about $6,000 and $3,000 more, respectively — or roughly $10,000 less than their Montgomery County counterparts.