Last fall the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago made national news when it announced its latest environmental initiative: the purchase of 30 electric cars that would be used to transport maintenance, engineering, and security staff around some of the district's large treatment facilities. It was the single biggest acquisition of electric cars by any American governmental entity. "The District prides itself on protecting the environment and utilizing our resources in the best public interest," board president Terry O'Brien said in a press release accompanying the announcement.
Over the last few years environmentalists have started paying close attention to the once obscure agency, which has a 2008 budget of $1.4 billion. In 2005 conservationist Debra Shore successfully campaigned for a district board seat by emphasizing the agency's work in preserving the region's waterways; challengers for board seats in last winter's primaries solicited endorsements from the Illinois Sierra Club. In the last few months state regulators, clean-water activists, outdoors enthusiasts, and district leaders have debated whether to impose tougher standards on water the agency discharges into Chicago's river and canal system.
The MWRD receives all the sewage and storm water collected in Chicago and most of suburban Cook County, treats it to remove toxins, and then releases it into a drainage system that ends up in the Mississippi. In the process it screens out biosolids and reworks them into material suitable for eventual use as fertilizer or landfill. Doing all this uses a tremendous amount of energy—the district spent nearly $40 million on electric and gas bills in 2007—but it also generates some energy through hydropower and captures most of the methane produced in the treatment process. "At our district we help fight global warming and climate change," says Frank Avila, one of the district's board's nine directors.
But for years Avila, O'Brien, their colleagues on the board, and dozens of other MWRD employees have been enjoying taxpayer-paid perks that dramatically increase the district's carbon footprint. On top of an annual salary of between $50,000 and $80,000 for a part-time job, each commissioner enjoys the unlimited use of a district-supplied car. And none of them is driving an environmentally friendly model.
One commissioner drives a Chrysler 300C, which gets 15-22 miles per gallon and according to the federal government produces about ten tons of carbon a year. Several others drive Ford Crown Victorias, which have about the same fuel efficiency, and two use Ford Explorer SUVs, which get even worse mileage and yield more greenhouse gases.
"I drive it for safety reasons, and I haul a lot of stuff around," says commissioner Cynthia Santos, who drives one of the Explorers. "It's not any more environmentally unfriendly than the other cars [commissioners drive]."
Commissioners say they need the cars to get to facilities and events, especially since they're each elected to represent the whole county—unlike, say, county commissioners, who each represent a specific slice of it. "We've got to have transportation to different facilities, to real estate, to construction sites. We have a lot of meetings with groups and public officials," says O'Brien. "It's a lot cheaper than having a district office, I'll tell you that."
In 2007 O'Brien logged 17,541 miles on his district-funded 2006 Crown Victoria, or about 1,462 miles a month. Commissioner Patricia Horton led the board by putting 18,547 miles on her 2006 Crown Vic, and Avila was right behind her with 18,540 miles on his.
Avila says he regularly makes presentations to students, senior citizens, and other groups to explain how the water reclamation process helps the environment. "I think we have to educate the public, and especially young people, about how we can protect the planet," he said. "Who's going to save the planet? The kids. And we as adults and parents have to provide an educational system to make our kids more aware."
Some commissioners don't keep the kind of public schedule that Avila does, and others simply don't use their district-owned cars as much. Shore put just 4,481 miles on her 2004 Crown Vic.
Shore says she doesn't use the car for personal business, and even on district business she occasionally takes her own car and then submits receipts for reimbursement. She says that whenever she can she takes public transportation to work.
"But certainly we do attend a number of meetings—just last night I gave a talk to a group in Hillside, and I've been giving presentations to various groups around the county," Shore told me. "Whether that's a need that could be fulfilled through using [motor] pool cars or it's best to just give commissioners access to cars for their own use, I don't know because I haven't done a study."
Still, thousands of the miles commissioners put on their company cars have nothing to do with district business. Commissioners have been allowed personal use of the cars for decades—district spokesman Ed Cook says his staff hasn't been able to determine exactly when the policy was implemented, but one former commissioner says it dates back at least to the 1960s. At the end of each year they're required to fill out forms listing how many of the miles were for personal use and to count them as taxable compensation.
In 2006 and 2007, the forms show, more than 40 percent of the miles driven in the cars were for personal trips—though the rate varies widely from commissioner to commissioner. Shore reported that 100 percent of the miles on her car last year were work related. Commissioner Gloria Alitto Majewski reported that none of her 14,699 miles were.
Majewski says she uses her car—a sporty 2006 Chrysler 300C—to commute to the district's downtown office from her home in the south suburbs. "This way I don't have to make decisions about [buying] a car," she says. "I'm grateful for it. I think it's a wonderful perk."
She says that in addition to paying taxes on all the personal miles, she covers most of the car's gas out of her own pocket. "I pay for probably 60 to 70 percent," she says. "I have my own credit cards."
The commissioners' car perks arguably stand out because of the district's environmental mission, but they're not the only transportation privileges enjoyed by area elected officials and public employees. Many Chicago aldermen drive taxpayer-funded gas guzzlers, and some city and county officials are chauffeured to work. And commissioners aren't the only district employees allowed the use of cars paid for by the public. Records show the district owns nearly 400 vehicles, most of them assigned to individual employees, and this year it budgeted more than $800,000 to fuel and maintain them. Another $800,000 was set aside to buy new cars. There are clear guidelines for what the cars and trucks should look like—all must be white—but more open-ended rules for when they're allowed to be used. "District vehicles are primarily provided to accomplish District work objectives. The secondary purpose is to provide limited personal use," the official policy states.
In addition to the commissioners, 18 high-ranking employees are allowed to drive their cars on personal trips, and another 96 can also use them to commute. Most of the others are allowed to drive their cars home on certain occasions, such as when "it would be more economical for the District."
The policy warns employees to be sensitive to public perception of how the cars are used: "Drivers should avoid parking a District vehicle in locations that may raise questions regarding appropriate use of District vehicles." Commissioners, though, are exempt from all of these policies and free to use their cars as they see fit.
The district doesn't maintain logs of the commissioners' trips or destinations, and while they do submit monthly mileage and vehicle expense reports, they're all filled out by a single staffer who works in the district garage downtown. Cook and some of the commissioners say this staffer collects their gas receipts and checks their odometers for them.
The numbers in these reports raise as many questions as they answer. For example, mileage figures were missing from three of the last five monthly vehicle reports for district board vice president Kathleen Therese Meany, while the numbers on logs for Cynthia Santos ranged widely, from zero for the entire month of August, when she said she was on vacation, to 1,227 for October and 768 for November (the September log was missing entirely).
Cook says the district has fuel pumps at its plants that commissioners can use for free, or they can fill up at a gas station and pay with a district-issued credit card, keeping records of the number of gallons purchased and how much they cost. But some of these expenses are troubling: the logs for two commissioners, Patricia Horton and Barbara McGowan, indicate the district was paying more than $4 for each gallon of gas they used at a time when area prices averaged about 50 cents a gallon less.
Plus, the cars themselves aren't exactly the cheapest on the market. According to district records, all were purchased new for between $24,000 and a little more than $28,000. Most are about a year and a half old, though three are about four years old. Under district policy, commissioners' cars are typically replaced after three years or 50,000 miles.
None of the board members is lobbying to change this policy anytime soon, but there's a chance commissioners will start driving more environmentally friendly models in the next couple of years. Shore says last year the board awarded several contracts for hybrid cars, which she hopes will replace the district's current fleet as the budget allows.
Jack Darin, director of the Illinois chapter of the Sierra Club, says the district could probably get state subsidies to help convert to a hybrid fleet. "It's very important symbolically—we're in a time where global warming is the challenge of our generation, and all of our public agencies, especially those involved with environmental protection, should be models," he said. "And I think choosing more efficient cars is smart fiscally."
O'Brien, the board president, says the district is already using its money wisely. "We have a triple bond rating. Since 1991 we have abated $200 million back to taxpayers—you tell me what other public agency has done that," he says. "I think we're managing the money of the taxpayers very well."
"Let's just call it what it is: it's a perk," counters Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association. "It's a vestige of a bygone era. It betrays their fundamental attitude: I'm going to get what I'm going to get. If it's there, we'll take it."v