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Fisher drives home point on county car

Deputy County Executive Bruce L. Fisher surrendered his take-home county car about a year ago, as the government tightened its belt and the public lashed out at plans for a sales-tax increase.

Fisher now has another car provided by Erie County taxpayers, a Chevrolet Impala he can drive from his Buffalo home to work and gas up free at county-owned pumps.

"The deputy county executive is on 24-hour call," Fisher told The Buffalo News on Wednesday. "That's why I have a vehicle assigned to me."

He said on rare occasions he stops with it at the grocery store.

"When I drive my kids around on the weekend, I typically use the family minivan," he said.

Erie County is not alone in letting some of its officials drive government cars to and from work. But when budget-makers said they had no choice but to raise taxes for 2005, those take-home vehicles again became a public flash point.

Even though the county in recent years had cut the size of its fleet, taxpayers asked why government officials grant themselves perks that few taxpayers receive from their private-sector employers.

"We've got to level the playing field between the public and private sector," said James Ostrowski. He's a Buffalo lawyer who founded the taxpayer group Free Buffalo to try to beat back further tax increases and to force governments to look more critically at perks -- like take-home cars for the deputy county executive and other leaders.

"It seems to me that, unless he can demonstrate that he is using this car heavily on a daily basis, he can do what the rest of us do. If he uses his car for a business purpose, he can keep a record of it and seek reimbursement," Ostrowski said.

For much of last year, Fisher had been expected to use a pool vehicle when driving on county business. At the start of this year, County Executive Joel A. Giambra decided Fisher could again have a car around-the-clock, a benefit also given to Carl J. Calabrese when he was deputy county executive.

As Giambra's second-in-command, Fisher earns $107,397 a year -- more than Giambra -- and could be called to emergencies, so he can take the 2002 Impala home, said Arthur F. Telaak Jr., who heads the Department of Information and Support Services, which monitors county vehicles outside the Sheriff's Department.

Seven Public Works Department officials have take-home vehicles. So do six in the Department of Emergency Services, seven in the Department of Environment and Planning, six in the Health Department, two in the Parks and Recreation Department and two at Erie Community College, including its president, William Mariani.

The district attorney's office has 13 vehicles, though some are considered undercover cars, and for security reasons, there is no tally on how many are allowed for take-home use, Telaak said.

But District Attorney Frank J. Clark is given a take-home car. County Clerk David J. Swarts has a sport utility vehicle, which he has said he needs for driving between auto bureaus. Also for security reasons, there is no record of how many Sheriff's Department vehicles are driven home by employees, Telaak said.

So far, Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz has not been assigned a take-home car, though county rules entitle him to one. Former Comptroller Nancy A. Naples used to decline the perk, too.

Giambra spends a lot of time in his county-owned sport utility vehicle and is driven by a part-time employee. Then there's Fisher, the only official to have a car returned to him this year, a benefit he must, and does, claim on his tax return.

"I frequently use the thing after-hours for official purposes," Fisher said. "And frankly, when I don't use it, it is a pool car. So, I tend to leave it in the garage with the keys downstairs. And people just use it."

A lot has occurred in county government since Fisher gave up a car last year. Two sales tax increases have brought Erie County's rate to 8.75 cents on the dollar, the state's second-highest. The property tax levy rose 20 percent for 2006. A four-year recovery plan has been presented to the new Erie County Fiscal Stability Authority, a state-appointed control board.

And if the plan falls apart, taxpayers will see another tax increase for 2007.

So should the government continue taking a hard line on cars?

"There is no reason on earth why the deputy county executive needs a taxpayer-funded car," said Legislature Chairwoman Lynn M. Marinelli, D-Town of Tonawanda. "I don't see the need. If we don't practice some austerity, how are we going to get through these fiscal stability years?"

Marinelli said that early in 2005 the Legislature had asked the Giambra administration to provide a policy that determines who receives take-home cars, but the staff can't find a record that the policy arrived. Now, a Legislature committee will probably ask for one again, she said.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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