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Taxpayers funding car allowances for top officials’ luxury rides

Updated February 19, 2023 - 4:30 pm

Taxpayers are footing the bill for Cadillacs, Audis, Teslas and other luxury vehicles for some of Southern Nevada’s highest-compensated government employees — vehicles the workers keep when they leave public jobs, records show.

The workers, many of whom receive salaries of more than $200,000 a year, are receiving up to $700 a month in car allowances — a benefit that can cover a substantial portion of monthly lease or loan payments for the pricey vehicles, a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation found.

Many officials buy top luxury or sports cars, Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles registration records show. And one of the county employees receiving the benefit had no vehicles registered in her name, records show.

In 2021, Clark County and the Clark County School District each had more than 40 employees with vehicle allowances, costing taxpayers about $400,000 combined, records show. UNLV and the University of Nevada, Reno spent more than $100,000 on allowances — UNR spent the most with $319,000 in 2021 — but those numbers also include housing allowances for some top officials.

The most recent data available from the agencies was from 2021.

By contrast, the state does not provide car allowances to any employees. Instead, it pays mileage or provides fleet vehicles to workers who drive as part of their jobs. The city of Las Vegas limits the perk to the mayor under a 2007 ordinance passed by her predecessor, who is also her husband.

Robert Fellner, a vice president at Nevada Policy Research Institute, said the average Clark County employee’s wage was higher than the average in 99 percent of counties in the United States. He said pricey benefits have been phased out by many private companies, but governments demonstrate a failure of leadership by continuing the perks.

“You need a responsible government, and you need someone who takes seriously taxpayers’ money and says we’re not going to buy people a car,” he said.

Clark County does not have a formal policy about who will receive an allowance. The county manager awards the benefit, according to spokesman Erik Pappa, who himself receives a $6,000 annual car allowance as part of a nearly $190,000 pay and benefits package.

The car allowances are on top of a bevy of benefits that some top officials receive — like reimbursements for electronic devices, four-day work weeks and selling back vacation while still employed — data from the agencies shows.

Pricey vehicles for top officials

Kevin Schiller, who was promoted from deputy Clark County manager to the top job in November, received $6,000 in 2021 for a car allowance on top of more than $300,000 in pay and benefits. He has five vehicles, including a classic 1980 Porsche 911 and a 2019 Audi RS5 that has a base price of nearly $75,000, DMV records show.

Drew Christensen, director of Clark County’s office of appointed counsel, has two Cadillacs — a 2015 ATS Luxury and a 2022 CT5 Sport, records show. Christensen receives a $500 monthly car allowance on top of his $250,000 pay and benefits package.

Deputy County Manager Jeff Wells, who has been the focus of Review-Journal investigations that looked into his effectiveness in running county departments, drives a 2022 Audi A4. The payments for that vehicle could almost be covered by his $6,000 annual car allowance. In all, he made $314,000 in salary and benefits in 2021.

Caroline Santoro, who is the county’s manager of a department that deals with accounting, risk management and procurement, and audit director Angela Darragh also received $500 a month in car allowances.

Santoro, who makes $204,000 in pay and benefits, has a 2018 Lexus GX 460 that, fully loaded, costs as much as $70,000 new. Darragh, who makes $216,000 a year, has a 2020 Jaguar F-PACE that tops out at $89,000, depending on the model and options.

County CFO Jessica Colvin received $6,000 in car allowances in 2021, but DMV officials could find no vehicles registered in her name since 2015.

Darragh declined to comment. Schiller, Christensen, Wells, Colvin and Santoro did not respond to calls, emails and requests for an interview made through Pappa.

Pappa emailed a statement that said the county manager provides the benefit to employees who are “expected to be available when needed and to travel for the business they conduct on behalf of the county.”

“An employee’s decision on how they choose to spend their own salary is theirs alone,” the statement said. “The car allowance is a fringe benefit of their employment.”

The county also has more than 2,500 fleet vehicles — ranging from specialized work vehicles like tractors and ambulances to a half dozen Tesla Model 3s — for its various departments. Taxpayers paid $147 million for those vehicles. And the county pays out about $100,000 a year in mileage reimbursements split among nearly 500 employees, records show.

Local government policies

Stephanie Klapstein, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Administration, said the state’s benefits differ from local government perks.

The “state does not provide vehicle allowances, wellness/gym allowances, or device allowances,” she wrote in an email response to Review-Journal questions. “Employees may be granted access to state-owned vehicles and devices.”

That could change because in 2019 the Legislature passed a law allowing state employees to unionize for the first time.

Some local governments significantly limit the benefit.

A 2007 Las Vegas city ordinance sponsored by then-Mayor Oscar Goodman increased mayoral pay and provided a car allowance — $7,200 a year — which his wife, Mayor Carolyn Goodman, now receives. No other city employee receives a car allowance.

The Goodmans have not had a vehicle registered in their names since 2018, DMV records show. Carolyn Goodman did not respond to a request for comment left with the city’s spokesman.

Henderson and North Las Vegas provide the allowances to the mayor, council members, city manager and city attorney, records show. The benefit costs North Las Vegas taxpayers about $43,000 and Henderson taxpayers $56,000 a year.

Former North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee defended the practice, saying it increases efficiency and prevents abuses like people padding mileage reimbursements.

“The system takes out all lying, mischief and risk,” he said. “I see it as a benefit to residents.”

But Lee could not explain why most of the agencies provide the allowance only to top officials instead of rank-and-file employees who are on call or use their vehicles regularly for work.

“I’m not sure I know the details of what the city and state offer,” he said.

Car allowances in education

The Clark County School District, UNLV and University Medical Center also pay vehicle allowances to top officials. The hospital is run by the Clark County Commission.

School district Superintendent Jesus Jara and two assistant superintendents received allowances of between $6,240 and $8,400 in 2021, district data shows. DMV records show that Jara has a 2018 Cadillac XTS.

District communications staff did not respond to requests for an interview with Jara, but spokesman Mauricio Marin said the allowance was not included in Jara’s new contract extension last year. He did not know why.

UNLV president Keith Whitfield received a car allowance of $8,000 in 2021 and a housing allowance of $18,000, and Vice President of Philanthropy and Alumni Outreach Rickey McCurry was paid $18,200 in vehicle and home allowances that year.

“It is paid in lieu of reimbursement for eligible transportation expenses, as permitted by applicable state and federal rules,” UNLV spokesman Francis McCabe wrote in an email exchange.

In 2021, Whitfield made $564,766 in pay and benefits and McCurry made $369,025, school data shows.

Whitfield owns five vehicles — three classic cars, a 2006 Jeep Wrangler and a 2017 Tesla Model X, DMV records show. McCurry owns three Cadillacs and a Toyota.

Neither Whitfield nor McCurry responded to interview requests made through McCabe.

University Medical Center CEO Mason Van Houweling receives $6,000 annually for his vehicle allowance. The benefit is part of a compensation package that tops $1 million a year, records show. Records also show that he has five vehicles, including a 2021 Mercedes A220 and a 1966 Corvette, registered in his name.

Van Houweling said two of the cars — including the Mercedes — are his daughters’ and they pay for them. He said he has had the Corvette for a long time.

The hospital CEO said the allowance pays for a 2006 Honda Pilot with 235,000 miles that he uses to visit employees and communities from Laughlin to Mesquite. The benefit allows him to avoid time-consuming mileage reports, he said.

“I’m not behind a desk very often,” he added.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com and follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is editor of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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