in Houston, Texas
Metro wants Houstonians to take the bus, but makes sure top execs don't have to; Transit agency spending $125K annually on car allowances for high-ranking employees
Friday, Apr 09, 2010, 08:22PM CST
By Steve Miller

car rims

It's a lush gig to be an exec at Metro.

Along with five-figure sums for deferred compensation, 10 percent annual pay hikes and termination plans that give them up to a year of full salary, high-ranking officials at Harris County's Metro enjoy car allowances large enough to sit them in just about any luxury car they like.

A Texas Watchdog review of car allowances at Metro finds that 20 current staffers are given stipends for their rides. Ironic, of course, given that they work for a department that deals in mass transit. We don't see any mention of unlimited free Metro rides in Metro's executive job offer letters, but Metro employees do get to ride the bus and light rail for free as part of their compensation.

Given the troubled state of Metro, which has been plagued by a scandal involving shredded public documents, this week's raid pertaining to the investigation and the termination of special counsel Pauline Higgins, the car allowances could appear to be an extravagance. Especially when one considers the cost of a much-debated light rail expansion and a recently announced bond issuance.

The annual car allowances range from $4,800 to $12,360, the latter of which only President Frank Wilson enjoys. Totaled up, the department currently hands out $125,360 annually for vehicles for their top-ranking employees, according to information provided by Metro.

That's enough to put those public transit honchos in a luxury car, for which lease rates star around $350 a month with a zero down payment.

Higgins received a car allowance of $307.70 every two weeks. Under the severance portion of her deal with Metro, she gets to keep the payment until she gets a new job, with payments capped at $200,000. (Pretty sweet golden parachute, but skimpy when compared to Wilson's.)

Light rail director John von Briesen, whose marriage to an exec with a Metro light rail contractor has been highlighted recently, gets a $6,000 annual car allowance.

Human resources VP M. Helen Cavazos was out of the office Friday, and another HR office worker said she could not answer questions about the parameters for offering car allowances. We left a message for Cavazos --- who gets a $6,000 annual car allowance --- and we'll post an update if we hear from her Monday.

Car allowances are seen as a recruiting tool for both private and public enterprises and are considered by some as important as vacation time and moving allowances. In general, they are taxable like any other form of compensation.

Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or Photo by flickr user Mr. DJ Rob Perkins, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Ken Martin
Friday, 04/09/2010 - 08:28PM

Great story! This seems like something I need to check out via Tha Austin Bulldog. Keep up the good work.

barry Klein
Sunday, 04/11/2010 - 05:19PM

Now, if memory serves, One of the first Metro scandals occurred during the reign of Metro's first Executive Director, Barry Goodman (a local consultant today).

Around 1980 he proposed that Metro buy Buicks for the senior staff and justified it by saying that the luxury cars could be used to push immobile buses off the streets when break downs occurred, which was a frequent event in the early days. The taxpayer disgust and anger was so intense that he was soon forced to leave the office.

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