By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
HARRISBURG – So what if you have to pay a little extra to use the state’s major east-west highway? At least the guys at the top have sweet rides.
Tolls on the Pennsylvania Turnpike have increased for five consecutive years and the highway’s debt burden has ballooned by more than 200 percent since 2007. At the same time, the men charged with running the turnpike received new cars valued at more than $28,000 each and were reimbursed for the cost of gas and maintenance, according to an audit released by Auditor General Jack Wagner this week.
The Turnpike Commission spent more than $406,000 purchasing vehicles for commissioners between January 2007 and August 2011, according to the audit. The turnpike did not limit those vehicles exclusively to work-related purposes.
The vehicles were American-made sedans, station wagons and sport-utility vehicles valued at more than $28,000 each.
In addition to cars they could use on personal time, the commissioners were also reimbursed for more than $20,000 in maintenance costs and $29,000 in fuel costs during that period, according to the audit.
In total, the Turnpike Commission spent more than $450,000 in vehicle expenses for commissioners in less than five years from January 2007 through August 2011, the period covered in the audit.
“We found no convincing reason to allow commissioners to use commission-purchased vehicles for personal use,” the auditors wrote.
During a news conference Tuesday, Wagner said the turnpike should stop giving cars to commissioners and instead offer mileage reimbursements for work-related travel.
“Rather than giving a commissioner an automobile, pay them for mileage,” Wagner said. “We think minor items like that are very significant because it defines the culture of the turnpike and the Turnpike Commission.”
The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission is a five-member governing body, with four members selected by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate. The state Secretary of Transportation serves as the fifth member of the commission.
Commissioners are paid the relatively modest salary of $26,000 for their positions, which require them to be on-duty 24 hours a day and seven days a week.
But they seem to make up for the modest salaries with expense accounts that auditors deemed “overly generous and permissive.”
Commissioners do not fill out timesheets or otherwise document their work hours, auditors wrote, making it impossible to verify the turnpike’s claim that its commissioners are on-call around-the-clock.
“Let’s face it, the commissioners are the leaders and they need to be cost-efficient for the turnpike to be cost-efficient,” Wagner said during a Tuesday news conference.
In a written response to the audit, the Turnpike Commission’s acting CEO Craig Shuey said the report gave the agency “additional areas to consider as a part of our long-term strategy to position the organization for future challenges; as such, each will be given the appropriate level of attention as we continue to modernize our operations and readjust our priorities.”
However, the written response did not specifically address the issue of vehicles for commissioners. Turnpike spokesman Carl Defebo said the agency had no additional comment at this time.
The audit does not name specific vehicles purchased or which commissioners benefited from the tollpayer-funded expenses.
Wagner said he has a policy against “naming names” in audits because people holding various public offices can change over time.
The audit also found that the turnpike commission had reimbursed commissioners for the cost of purchasing cell phones, cell phone equipment and mobile Internet service on occasion.
There are no monetary limitations on travel reimbursements and the turnpike allowed commissioners to have complete autonomy regarding their expenses and vehicle usage, the auditors reported.
“We believe government officials should be held to a higher standard and that excessive and undocumented expenses should not be permitted nor reimbursed,” they concluded. “The Turnpike Commission needs to be fully transparent regarding expenses incurred by its commissioners, and moreover, commissioners need to be held accountable for those expenses.”
Contact Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.
Edited by firstname.lastname@example.org.