10:00 PM PDT on Friday, July 16, 2010

By IMRAN GHORI and DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County pays the highest car allowance of any Southern California county and provides it to the most employees, according to a survey released this week.

The $1,123-a-month stipend, provided to officials and staff members who use their own vehicles instead of county-owned cars, is almost twice as much as in other nearby counties.

Riverside County provides $550 a month, Los Angeles County has a top monthly allowance of $620 and Orange County offers $765 a month.

Only San Diego County comes close to San Bernardino County with a $1,000 monthly allowance. But that stipend is available only to 10 top officials. Lower amounts are provided to other county employees with an average of $705 a month.

San Bernardino County has more than 100 employees eligible for the benefit.

Riverside County human-resources officials conducted the survey as part of an effort to revamp their vehicle-allowance policy. The county proposed increasing the car allowance while reducing the number of executives eligible for a government-owned car.

Riverside County supervisors voted Tuesday to change the policy and give only elected officials the choice of using a county-owned car as part of efforts to reduce its fleet. They voted to keep the allowance at $550 per month for those who use their own cars, rather than boosting it to $1,000 for elected leaders and $850 for other executives.

Riverside County also provides a $0.50-per-mile reimbursement in addition to the monthly allowance, a benefit San Bernardino County does not provide.

“Just because the other counties are doing it doesn’t mean this county should,” Riverside County Supervisor Bob Buster said of a higher vehicle allowance.

2007 INCREASE

San Bernardino County supervisors increased the car allowance to its current level in June 2007, along with approving increases in their own health and retirement benefits. The car allowance had been $750 per month.

The benefits were rolled back last year, but the allowance was left at $1,123.

County spokesman David Wert said the size of the county — which at 20,160 square miles is the largest in the United States — is one of the reasons for the higher stipend. He cited rising gas prices as another factor.

“You have to take into account that L.A. County could be paying too little,” Wert said. “I don’t think you can say because one county pays more, that county is too high.”

According to the survey, San Bernardino County makes the allowance available to 123 employees, although Wert said 120 is the correct number. All but five of those eligible choose to take it, he said.

That’s more than twice as many as the other counties. In Riverside, 50 employees are eligible for the allowance, San Diego makes it available to 44, and Orange County provides it to 51 employees. In Los Angeles County only 30 employees are allowed the stipend.

The counties generally provide the stipend to elected officials, department heads and top executives.

In San Bernardino County, supervisors’ staff members are among those eligible for the allowance, and 40 take the benefit. A list of San Bernardino County officials receiving the allowance was not immediately available from the county.

Wert said San Bernardino County provides cars or the allowance to employees who may need to be available 24 hours a day.

He said the county faces less liability for employees who use their own cars and is not responsible for purchasing insurance, repairs, maintenance and gas for them.

COST DEFENDED

Elected officials have the choice of county car or the allowance. Only two San Bernardino County supervisors, Gary Ovitt and Josie Gonzales, take the stipend. Supervisors Neil Derry, Brad Mitzelfelt and Paul Biane all choose to drive county-issued cars.

Mitzelfelt, who represents the vast 1st District that stretches to Needles and the Nevada border, is eligible for $1,685 per month.

Derry said he has driven 42,000 miles in a Toyota Camry hybrid in the 20 months he has had the county car. His 3rd district stretches from San Bernardino to Yucca Valley.

If he were paid the 50 cents-a-mile reimbursement that is the Internal Revenue Service standard, the cost would surpass the county stipend, he said.

Although he doesn’t receive the allowance, “I don’t think it’s out of step, not considering the size of my district,” Derry said.

In a statement, Biane said he’s never accepted an auto allowance in his eight years as a supervisor.

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