MARC CHASE: Lease should expire on government take-home cars

2014-03-18T00:00:00Z MARC CHASE: Lease should expire on government take-home carsMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
March 18, 2014 12:00 am  • 

Calumet Township Trustee Mary Elgin, a north Lake County Democrat, isn't the only region official opening herself to scrutiny by creating a perception of using taxpayer resources for personal benefit.

Winfield Township Trustee Roland Brauer, a Republican overseeing a south Lake County constituency, admits his take-home use of a township-owned Chevrolet Suburban SUV has created more trouble than it's worth.

In the end, Brauer and Elgin have only themselves to blame.

I heard from a number of readers recently after my column took aim at Elgin's use of her take-home Ford Explorer SUV for personal, campaign-related errands. Elgin showed me this gas guzzler last week when I visited her office and confirmed it's her primary vehicle, municipal plate and all.

She also confirmed it's the same vehicle photographed outside her campaign office earlier this month — while she was dropping off a key there.

But she's not the only one cruising around in a taxpayer-funded vehicle to places of personal interest. It's pretty clear her south county counterpart, Brauer, is doing something similar.

On Friday, I photographed a white Chevrolet Suburban — a full-size truck/SUV that's sure to guzzle gas — outside Brauer's Crown Point sign-making business on Broadway. The truck was backed into a parking space near the front of the building but was out far enough to reveal its municipal license plate.

The Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles confirmed the Suburban is registered to Winfield Township. Two of Brauer's constituents photographed the same truck outside the same business within the past few weeks. The Suburban was parked Monday in Brauer's home driveway in Winfield.

Brauer spoke to me Monday, admitting a township vehicle parked outside his business and home creates a perception of using taxpayer-funded property for personal use. He said the Suburban has been his take-home vehicle since June 2013 — part of an experiment to compare, after a year, the cost of using a take-home vehicle versus claiming mileage on a personal vehicle.

He also claims he doesn't use the vehicle — which he said gets about 10 to 12 miles per gallon and costs about $125 per month in fuel expenses — for personal or private business use, even when it's parked in his driveway or outside his business.

But perception is everything, and Brauer knows this. It's hard for most reasonable people to believe a vehicle isn't being used for personal benefit when Brauer uses it to transport himself from his home to his private business — or even from a municipal building to his business or home.

Brauer said perception might be enough to prompt him to park the vehicle at the Winfield government center when the year-long experiment expires this summer. Parking it makes sense because Brauer is concluding not much cost difference between the take-home car experiment and previous mileage reimbursement.

With the exception of police and other emergency personnel, public officials still using take-home vehicles need to turn in the keys. The lease on public patience with government take-home cars has expired.

Investigative Editor Marc Chase can be reached at (219) 662-5330 or marc.chase@nwi.com. The opinions are the writer's.

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