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Snohomish County May Cut Vehicle Stipends for Officials

January 26, 2009

EVERETT, WA - If an ordinance proposed by Snohomish County Council Chairman Mike Cooper is approved, county coffers will no longer have to pay out $570 each month to nearly a dozen elected officials, according to the Web site, http://heraldnet.com.

Those leaders have been raking in more than $6,800 a year in extra cash on top of their salaries as compensation for using their own vehicles on county business.

Cooper announced late last year that he would propose an ordinance that would trim the $570 monthly stipend down to about $250. He'll give the four other councilmen a second option: to get rid of the stipend altogether.

"This is one thing we can do that says the council is serious about asking everybody in the county to suffer a little bit to save a few jobs," Cooper said.

Cooper said he doesn't know whether the rest of the council will agree. If they choose to only trim it to about $250, Cooper said he will opt out of the allowance.

County Prosecuting Attorney Janice Ellis is the only elected leader in county government who has not been collecting the monthly payment. She said she opted out of it in 2003, when her office was dealing with a budget shortfall. Sheriff John Lovick, who drives a squad car and doesn't qualify for the stipend, and county judges are the only elected officials who would be exempt from a council decision to change the stipend rate.

County government is facing a revenue shortfall that could reach $21 million this year. More than 100 county workers have been laid off, and county services have been trimmed to save money.

The council recently voted to require each member of its staff to take nine unpaid days off this year in an effort to balance the budget. Those workers are losing out on about 5 percent of their salaries, Cooper said.

Councilmen are obligated to work days set for them by an independent commission, but Cooper saw a way to take a pay cut through trimming vehicle stipends.

"If we go to zero (on the vehicle stipend), that would be about 5 percent of our income," he said. "We'd feel the same pain that our staff is feeling."

The county's elected leaders have salaries ranging from about $94,000 for the county clerk, auditor and others to about $140,000 for County Executive Aaron Reardon.

Cooper and other county leaders said they weren't previously aware that they could, like Ellis, refuse the monthly payment. Officials have taken stipends in exchange for driving their own cars since 1980. They can also choose to use a county-owned vehicle instead of driving their own cars and taking the money.

State law requires that a vehicle stipend must be less than it would cost to operate a government vehicle. The council usually sets the stipend at 99 percent of that estimated cost.

Councilman Brian Sullivan said he plans to agree to eliminate the stipend if Cooper proposes it. If that happens, he said he will begin tracking the miles he drives on his vehicle for county business and submit that data for reimbursement from the county at the federal rate of 58.5 cents per mile.

"I don't see anyone voting against this," Sullivan said.

According to the federal mileage rate, county leaders would have to drive nearly 12,000 miles each year on county business for a reimbursement equaling the current vehicle stipend. That's the total number of miles the American Automobile Association estimates the average driver puts on a vehicle each year, for both work and personal use.

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