Baltimore County Council members took heat again last week over their use of taxpayer-funded cars, a rare perk among local councils in the Baltimore area.
At a meeting in Towson, county resident Mary Locke said she was surprised to learn that Councilman Todd Huff was behind the wheel of a county-issued, "gas guzzling" Jeep Grand Cherokee last month when he was arrested on drunken-driving charges. She questioned whether the county is doing enough to ensure that the vehicles aren't misused.
The vehicles cost taxpayers a total of about $55,000 last year for fuel, maintenance and other expenses, according to county officials. The council's policy on the vehicles is one paragraph long, saying only that members are entitled to county-maintained vehicles and that personal mileage will be deducted from their paychecks.
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Last year, each council member paid less than $800 a year for his or her vehicle, according to information provided by the county.
Huff, a Lutherville Republican, relinquished his 2010 SUV — purchased for about $23,000 — after his arrest.
The Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard county councils do not have government-issued cars, according to officials in those jurisdictions. Council members in Harford and Howard counties are reimbursed for mileage for official county business travel, while Anne Arundel's are not.
In Baltimore City, council members can lease cars with funds from their $5,000 yearly office expense accounts. Five of the council's 14 members lease cars, with costs ranging from $400 a month to $471 a month. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young drives a city-owned SUV.
After Huff's arrest, the chairman of the local Republican Party said the county should have "a real conversation about government-issued cars." And Huff's fellow Republican on the council, Councilman David Marks of Perry Hall, proposed a clearer policy for how council members can use the cars — an idea that has not gained traction among colleagues.
Council Chairman Tom Quirk — the only council member without a county-issued vehicle — said the council's cars come with "a self-policing type of mechanism" and don't need more rules.
"Councilman Huff did the right thing and gave back the county car on his own volition, and if we had a council member that went in a different direction, ultimately, he or she would be held accountable by the voters," said Quirk, a Catonsville Democrat.
During his 2010 campaign, Marks said he would not take a county vehicle. He changed his mind after his 8-year-old Honda Civic went out, he said. He got a 2009 Chevrolet Impala in January. It cost $16,620 when the county bought it.
"It was not a decision I wanted to make, but I feel I'm not abusing it," said Marks, who was reimbursed more than $3,600 for mileage last year before he had a county car.
Marks said he uses the car "sparingly" for personal use, mostly driving it for council-related events such as community meetings. He does not drive it to fundraisers, he said.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she uses her county-issued Ford Fusion, a 2007 model that cost about $16,800, only for official business. Only she or her staff drive it, and she takes her personal vehicle to political or campaign events. If council members were reimbursed for mileage for county-related travel, it could cost taxpayers "a huge amount of money," Bevins said.
Councilman Kenneth Oliver, a Randallstown Democrat, declined to comment on the county cars. He has a $17,000 2008 Chevy Trailblazer.
Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Reisterstown Democrat who has a 2006 Chevy Impala that cost $16,165, and Councilman John Olszewski Sr., a Dundalk Democrat with a 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee that cost $19,086, did not return calls seeking comment about county cars.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.