Money lost over unenforced take-home vehicle ordinance

City Councilman Brian Mahern

Indianapolis - A tax break designed for you is not working, and it's costing all of us more in gas bills.

City workers who take home city cars agreed to pay a share for rising prices at the pump. When prices spiked well above $3 a gallon in 2008, the City-County Council came together to lessen the burn. They passed a fuel surcharge ordinance allowing the city to recoup $25 per paycheck from emergency services employees with take home vehicles, but only after prices reach a certain threshold.

City Councilman Brian Mahern considered it a win-win.

"This proposal was approved in a bipartisan way, common sense, cost-savings measure," said Mahern (D-City-County Council).

Now, three years after it was supposed to go into effect, 13 Investigates has learned the city has yet to collect one dime. But don't blame police and firefighters.

"In no way shape or form, have we had any conversations to delay this or to block it," said Bill Owensby, Fraternal Order of Police president.

Instead, it appears the city's own inattention has made the ordinance worthless.

"It's really mystifying, quite frankly, why it is that we don't have a surcharge, that we don't have an understanding of why we don't have a surcharge," said Mahern.

Mahern isn't the only one looking for answers at the City-County Building. We contacted the city controller several times to ask about the surcharge. But Jeff Spalding would only tell us that he was late for a meeting when we approached him to ask how much money had been collected.

In an email obtained by 13 Investigates sent to City Legal, a staff member responding to a councillor's requests writes:

"This is a little tricky, since it is a poorly written ordinance that has never been applied. Although the Fuel Board met in 2008 and set potential fuel surcharges for 2009, apparently, the retail price dropped below the threshold of $3/gallon, so the surcharge was never implemented."

"When we were debating this issue, that was the figure that was discussed - the $3 threshold, but rather than hard code that, we gave that responsibility to the fuel surcharge board," said Mahern.

The email goes on to say, "The Fuel Board never met in 2009 or 2010, so there was no surcharge set for calendar years 2010 or 2011."

In conservative figures, that means for the first three months this year, with average gas prices consistently over $3, the city could have collected a minimum $150,000 from street officers alone.

Off camera, many officers tell 13 Investigates they see the $25 as their fair share. The problem is for two years, the city has failed to even set up a legal way to deduct or deposit the surcharge or to provide city employees who don't want to participate a way to opt out.

"If there's something we can do to help offset the cost, we're happy to do that," said Owensby.

DPW Director David Sherman is in charge of the defunct Fuel Board. The mayor's office said he was unavailable, and Mayor Greg Ballard's communications director would speak instead.

"Mayor Ballard believes that that's the last step we should take to charging city employees, especially our public safety employees. We've reduced the overall number of take home vehicles across the city. We're also implementing a no idling policy," said Marc Lotter, mayor's spokesman.

"Completely missed opportunity," said Mahern.

Mahern plans to press the surcharge issue in Monday night's council meeting. But even with action this summer, the city still can't begin to recoup any savings from the ordinance until next year.