As health services are cut and sheriff's deputies are pulled off patrol, the budget vise squeezing Los Angeles County government has yet to touch one of the fattest perks enjoyed by supervisors and department heads: personal cars and the accompanying gas, maintenance and insurance costs of operating them.
The county's five supervisors cruise their districts in cars purchased at taxpayer expense. Supervisor Mike Antonovich drives a 2000 Cadillac DeVille that cost the county $43,172, according to documents obtained by The Times. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke commands a brand-new Lincoln sedan that cost the county $39,187 -- even after Burke chipped in $9,000 toward the purchase. All told, the tab for the supervisors' cars comes to $182,877.
In addition, 23 department heads, from the county auditor to its counsel and head librarian, drive vehicles that cost the county $586,602. Fifteen other top county executives receive car allowances, as part of their paychecks, that average $500 a month.
Advocates for the poor and unions that represent county workers said the vehicle perks enjoyed by a select few of the county's 90,000 workers should be eliminated before supervisors cut services or jobs.
"Unfortunately, this doesn't surprise me," said Joe Bader, regional administrator of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists. "This is the same Board of Supervisors that took benefits away from doctors a year ago in order to basically punish them for unionizing. Now they are laying people off in our bargaining unit."
But supervisors defended the perk, saying that they and other county employees rely on the cars to travel to numerous meetings in a county that is bigger geographically than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
The most expensive vehicles driven by county executives include a new $35,784 Ford Expedition used by Assessor Rick Auerbach and a new $33,547 Infiniti G35 purchased for Cato R. Fiksdal, the county's agricultural commissioner.
The county also provides cars to 61 of the supervisors' deputies, as well as to hundreds of workers in the department of weights and measures, the district attorney's office, public works and other departments.
The supervisors and other employees have exclusive use of the cars, and are able to drive them home after work. They are asked to use the cars for business only, but aren't required to document mileage.
The workers can refuel the cars at no charge at fire departments and sheriff stations across the county and have them washed for free in the Hall of Administration's parking garage. The county could not say how much it pays each year to fuel or service its vehicles.
Even as the county has struggled with its budget and cut services for the poor, its fleet of cars has grown to 3,773, excluding those assigned to employees in the Sheriff's and Fire departments or to those in public works. About 500 cars are assigned exclusively to specific county employees, with the others available to be checked out by workers on an as-needed basis.
Earlier this year, as county administrators girded themselves for more than $400 million in budget cuts, they signed off on the purchase of 10 new Ford Tauruses at a cost of $175,840.
They also approved lease agreements for two 2003 Acura TL sedans at terms that vary dramatically. The 36-month lease for Department of Consumer Affairs' Director Pastor Herrera's Acura TL is $653.10 a month, county records show, and the 36-month lease for the same make and model of car for Department of Public Social Services Director Bryce Yokomizo is $461.89 a month.
The county has made cars available to employees for decades. It even bought $75,000 armor-plated sedans for supervisors in the early 1990s after several lawmakers received death threats. Supervisors gave up those cars a few years later. But they still argue that the vehicles provided to them by the county are a necessity, not a perk.
"This is fair and reasonable," said Supervisor Don Knabe. He said he pays taxes on the 2001 Ford Expedition purchased for him by the county. "I have a very expansive district that runs from Marina del Rey to Diamond Bar and includes 26 cities. I go to a lot of meetings and community events."
Knabe estimated that he has put 60,000 miles on the $34,293 Expedition in two years. The county typically buys new vehicles for supervisors or department heads when their cars reach 70,000 miles or five years of age. Knabe said he plans to drive his Expedition "until it goes bad."
Antonovich said he gets a lot of work done in his car as he travels his district -- which, at 2,839 square miles, is larger than the four other supervisorial districts combined. An aide chauffeurs the supervisor to his various destinations. He added that he bought his car when it was a year old and has put 80,000 miles on it in two years.