LONG BEACH — Despite years of strained city budgets, the mayor and members of the City Council have used luxury cars at city expense, stayed in expensive hotel rooms when they travel to conferences, and handed out plaques and certificates costing tens of thousands of dollars of tax money.
The mayor and council exceeded their travel and entertainment budgets the past two fiscal years, and one councilman stayed several times in hotel rooms costing more than $200 a night. Altogether, the mayor and council have spent nearly $133,000 on travel and conference registration fees since mid-1988.
Mayor Ernie Kell and Councilmen Doug Drummond, Warren Harwood and Clarence Smith drive city-owned Buick Park Avenues, luxury cars that are the most expensive of some 800 cars in the city's fleet. The mayor's office spends more than $20,000 a year on plaques, certificates and photographs handed out to the public.
Such spending has occurred against a backdrop of budget troubles that have in recent months cut into a variety of municipal services and even raised the specter of city layoffs. City officials have cut back on hiring, library hours, tree trimming and recreation programs as they scramble to head off a possible $15-million deficit in the city's $287-million General Fund by this summer.
"For a period of about four years . . . we have been living very close to our fiscal margins," City Manager James C. Hankla observed at a budget meeting last month.
Yet last year, Drummond ordered a $26,704 Buick, probably the most expensive car ever bought for the city's fleet, according to the fleet supervisor.
"I was the first with a '91 (model)," said Drummond, who took office last July. "I hadn't realized the price had jumped. I ordered what the others had ordered. If I'd realized it was that expensive, I wouldn't have ordered it."
As for why he asked for a Buick and not a cheaper make, such as the Ford Taurus cars driven by Councilmen Evan Anderson Braude and Jeffrey A. Kellogg, Drummond said he tried the Taurus and did not like it. "It was not a very satisfactory automobile in my opinion. I didn't think it provided the performance or the comfort."
He added that he did not consider the Park Avenue a luxury car. "To me, it's kind of a mid-range car, often used as a rental car."
Although part-time council members in Santa Monica and Pasadena must use their own cars, Drummond and others defended their need for city vehicles, arguing that they attend meetings outside Long Beach and put in full-time hours on their part-time, $18,500-a-year positions.
"We are out late at night, here, there and everywhere," said Harwood, who compared council members to directors of a large corporation in deserving more than cheap compacts.
He said he chose his 1990 Park Avenue, costing $22,582, because "we have a Buick in our family. I know it's reliable and dependable and safe . . . . If there's some kind of natural disaster, that car I've got will get me through."
Smith also has a 1990 Park Avenue. "I weigh 245 pounds," he observed. "I'm overweight, I grant you. I'm 6-1. It's easier for me to get in and out of a car that has some size to it."
Citing the city's budget shortages, Councilman Les Robbins last month handed in his $17,173 Mercury Sable, opting instead to take the $450-a-month car allowance given local elected officials who use their own autos.
"These are tough times," Robbins said. "The City Council is going to have to look at some damn difficult (budget) decisions and I really think we have to have our house in order. I don't think the average person out there can take our budget situation real seriously" when city leaders are driving around in Park Avenues, he continued.
Even the council's car allowance is generous, compared with those given non-elected city employees. Department heads are given $350 a month and lower-ranking city workers receive less than that.
Other councilmen who take the car allowance are Thomas Clark and Wallace Edgerton. "The way you're supposed to use city cars can be easily abused," Edgerton said. "I just decided I didn't want to put myself in that situation."
City autos are to be used for city business. But as City Auditor Robert Fronke noted, "The definition of what is and what is not city business is an interpretation by and large made by each councilman himself."
Certainly, council members use their city cars to different extents. Braude put an average of 1,490 miles a month on the 1987 Taurus he recently exchanged for a 1991 model--more monthly mileage than any of his colleagues accumulated. By contrast, full-time Mayor Kell drives his 1989 Park Avenue an average of 581 miles a month, less than anyone else.
The city manager must approve car requests by the mayor and council. The city absorbs all the operating costs of the car, including gasoline, maintenance and repairs.