10:00 PM PST on Thursday, March 10, 2011

By ALICIA ROBINSON
The Press-Enterprise

Riverside City Councilman Steve Adams turned in his city-issued Chrysler 300C early this month, so now just three of the seven council members are driving city-owned cars.

But questions remain about the policy that allows elected officials to have a take-home city car and city-paid gas card instead of a $350 monthly auto allowance, with some information from city officials in direct conflict with council members’ assertions.

For instance, some council members said they followed a formula when claiming personal use of the cars on their taxes, but the city finance director said there is no set formula.

City-supplied information showed that four of the five council members who drove city cars in 2009 claimed on their taxes that year that half of their mileage was personal and half was city business.

Adams said Thursday that the city uses the 50/50 split to ensure council members don’t underpay taxes, since the IRS counts personal use of a city car as a taxable benefit.

Councilman Andy Melendrez said he recalls being told when he was issued his city car that the city versus personal use split would be put down as 60/40, and he was never asked the percentage of his personal use.

But city Finance Director Brent Mason said there’s no policy or formula for how much personal mileage is claimed, and it’s up to council members to report what they think is accurate. No documentation is required.

Last month, Mayor Ron Loveridge said he wasn’t aware of any other city offering unlimited use of take-home cars and urged council members to end the practice; Adams defended it.

Adams said at the time that having the car allowed him to provide better service by attending meetings, checking on projects and personally seeing to residents’ concerns. On Thursday, Adams said he believes soaring gas prices will make it cheaper for the city if he drives his own car.

“The whole purpose is what’s the least use of city tax dollars,” Adams said. “My service is never going to diminish. I just was doing what was best for the taxpayers and taxpayer dollars.”

The car issue has raised some eyebrows in Riverside, because it started without public discussion, former council members have said. Recently provided information highlights that it’s impossible to know exactly how the benefit is being used.

In response to a February request e-mailed to council members, the city provided the number of miles driven in 2009 by the five council members with city cars.

Council members using city cars were asked to provide redacted copies of their 2009 tax forms, but none responded to that portion of the request.

For four of them — Adams, Melendrez, Councilwoman Nancy Hart and Councilman William “Rusty” Bailey — the total miles driven varied, but for each the number of miles claimed on taxes, or personal use, was half of the total.

For example, Adams drove 19,494 miles in 2009, of which 9,747 were business miles and 9,747 were personal miles, according to the city’s information. Bailey, who drove the least of the four, had a total of 9,165 miles; personal miles and business miles were each 4,582.

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