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posted: 3/14/2012 7:28 PM

Arlington Heights Park District criticized over vehicle policy

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The founder of the Arlington Heights Tea Party is accusing the Arlington Heights Park District of being wasteful by allowing top administrators use district-owned vehicles for personal, as well as park district, business.

Members of the local Tea Party have brought the issue up at recent park district forums, held to share details of the proposed $48 million renovation of four of the village's five regional parks.

"If they wouldn't give cars to these people they could repair some of these buildings instead of borrowing $48 million," said Art Ellingsen, founder of the Arlington Heights chapter. "They're wasting a lot of money. They could have a pager rather than a car to keep in touch."

Park Board President Maryfran Leno defends the use of district-owned vehicles as part of the compensation for Executive Director Steve Scholten; Donna Wilson, director of finance and personnel; Brian Huckstadt, director of parks and planning; and Jim Glueckert, director of recreation and facilities. They are on call 24/7 and must respond to emergencies that range from storm damage to utility failures, crimes and vandalism, she said. As well, when vehicles go home with employees at night, the park district doesn't have to provide storage for them.

The vehicle expenses are a fraction of a percentage of the district's operating budget, said Scholten.

The Arlington Heights Park District is one of eight in the state that has a triple-A rating from Moody's, which represents a judgment of good fiscal management by the private agency, he added.

It also does not make sense for an employee with a district vehicle who has a limited number of drivers in the family to have to buy a second or third vehicle for personal use, Leno said. She said the board reviews its policies every three years.

Park district policy requires the four employees to keep track of all personal use of the vehicles -- a car, an SUV and two Dodge Caravans -- and pay taxes on the mileage as if it were compensation, based on the percentage of mileage that is personal and what the annual lease rate would be for such a vehicle. The policy also allows the vehicles to be used for personal out-of-state travel and by spouses.

Five other district employees also take vehicles home but are not allowed to use them for personal business, said Scholten.

Wilson said the vehicles were bought for between $18,000 and $25,000 each. They are rotated through the park district and kept about a decade before being sold, usually for $2,000 or more, Scholten said.

Most recently Scholten paid taxes on $1,213 of car use; Huckstadt $1,698; Wilson $3,450; and Glueckert $2,873.

All the vehicles are available during the day for use by other staffers, Scholten said.

Responding to Ellingsen's criticism, district officials confirmed that in 2004 one of the top employees had permission to drive a district vehicle to Florida on vacation. That employee paid for gas and travel expenses, said Scholten, who was not executive director at the time.

"We don't discriminate about where they're taking the car, whether five miles to the grocery store or 52 miles to Milwaukee," said Leno. "They pay taxes to the IRS for the usage."

Scholten said an employee must get his approval for any trip out of state or more than 150 miles, and the employee pays for gas in that case. In trips under 150 miles, the gas is considered part of the employees' compensation.

Personal use of vehicles is common among suburban park districts and not unheard of in municipalities, said Scholten.

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