Augusta Commission members who use their city gas cards have traveled about 40,000 miles on the taxpayers’ dime this year.
The 125-gallon monthly perk hasn’t changed since 1965, when a 31-cent gallon of gas might last 13 miles in the city.
Commissioners who use the cards have rebuffed every effort by their peers to rein in their usage, including Mayor Hardie Davis’ challenge last week to quit using the cards.
Abuse of the cards has decreased since 2008, when commissioners spent more than $10,000 on gasoline, led by outgoing Commissioner Bernard Harper, who gassed up 11 times after losing a Dec. 4 runoff election.
In the first nine months of 2015, the five commissioners who use the cards spent $4,307.09 on 1,954.83 gallons of fuel, enough at 23 miles per gallon to drive from Augusta to Seattle more than eight times.
Commissioners and the mayor have been issued the same Wright Express-brand cards used by city employees who drive staff vehicles, said Ron Crowden, the city fleet manager.
The system, for which the city pays a fee, generates detailed reports about every fuel purchase, including the type, date, time and location, which The Chronicle obtained. About 95 percent of area gas stations take the cards, Crowden said.
Cards used by staff are associated with a particular city vehicle, and users are expected to input their mileage at the time of purchase, Crowden said. According to purchase records, however, most commissioners don’t input an accurate mileage figure each time.
A vehicle enthusiast, Super District 9 Commissioner Marion Williams’ personal fleet includes a Nissan 350Z, a 1996 Ford diesel pickup, a Harley-Davidson Softail and a 1966 Chevrolet Chevelle and Camaro race car that he occasionally hauls to the track.
As in 2013 and 2014, Williams led the commission in fuel spending over the past nine months and has purchased 490.1 gallons of gasoline and 185.9 gallons of diesel, almost all of it at his favorite station, the Station House on Peach Orchard Road. Williams said it’s a popular hangout for older members of his neighborhood, so he often drops by to “let them know that people haven’t forgotten about them.”
Williams said he mostly drives the Nissan around to meetings and events, and uses the pickup when he needs a heavy-duty vehicle for rough terrain or hauling. He only occasionally drives the Harley for commission work, when the weather is nice, he said.
Each time the gas card issue comes up, Williams says the criticism is misplaced in light of low wages paid to the commission and other, more wasteful city spending.
“This is designed to keep the working man out – no working man is going to give up $30,000, $40,000, and that’s low, to work part time for $12,000,” a commissioner’s salary, Williams said.
Williams’ retort to Davis’ challenge last week was that the mayor and his chief of staff earn upwards of $70,000.
Two areas Williams is going after for waste include the $625 monthly stipend that members of the Richmond County Board of Assessors garner “for an hour’s work, once a month,” and about $200,000 in sales tax funds that Commissioner Sammie Sias’ neighborhood association was given in 2010 for renovations at the Jamestown Community Center.
Williams said the funds need auditing, while Sias, who wasn’t a commissioner at the time, has said the project was completed below architectural estimates.
“If there’s no accountability about the money spent by a commissioner at a community center, why should you be talking about gas?” Williams said.
Super District 10 Commissioner Grady Smith said his biweekly full-service stops at Tommy Smith’s Chevron help a local business and keep his 2003 Ford Expedition in tiptop shape. He said he’s not related to the station’s owner.
Smith had the fewest fill-ups of the five commissioners who used the cards, but because of the size of his tank and the price of unleaded plus and premium, he averaged more than $70 per fill-up.
Smith challenged critics, particularly those who don’t even live in Richmond County, to do his job and traverse the largest district to check out constituent complaints.
“Anybody that wants to can take my seat and go do what I do for what they pay me to do it,” he said. “Everybody wants to sit back and (complain) but nobody wants to step up to the plate and do what needs to be done.”
Trailing the two super district commissioners were three from the much smaller districts: District 1 Commissioner Bill Fennoy, with 37 fill-ups at $980.77; District 2 Commissioner Dennis Williams, with 16 fill-ups at $479.45; and District 6 Commissioner Ben Hasan, with 15 fill-ups at $448.20.
Despite the attention it gets, the commission’s fuel spending is just a drop – 0.15 percent – in the large bucket that is the city’s $2.8 million fuel budget for 2015. Though much of the budget is for law enforcement, most city departments have fuel budgets much larger than the commission.