Get On the Bus

Why does Philadelphia need 6,000 city-owned vehicles? Our man went looking for answers (on foot)

Like Dante’s Inferno, minus the tongues of fire but with the addition of some public art, the fourth and fifth rings of City Hall are soul-devouring places, sapping what little hope I had for getting any Council people to step up and say, “Hell no, we won’t roll!” In the words of one aide when contemplating the alternatives should her boss lose her car, “SEPTA blows.”
Only three Council members met with me in person: Curtis Jones Jr. (Crown Vic; $25,197), who said he’d hand over the keys to his car if it would save a library in his district; Bill Green, who takes the R8 to work and would probably walk backwards to the office if it would rankle his colleagues; and Bill Greenlee (Ford Taurus; $16,880), who was skeptical of my premise. “I’d listen to people’s opinion on that,” he said. Indeed, I had an opinion, and he listened. It’s what I heard him say to his staff as I left that was disturbing: “He didn’t look like a reporter” (I’m still not sure if that was a compliment or an insult), and “Cars are essential!”    
The latter was a popular sentiment. “My car is kind of like a mobile office,” said Frank Rizzo (Ford Escape XLT; $21,910), who might be in the market for Joe Coleman’s old van. “We have a family car, and my wife uses it. We’d have to buy another car for city work. I don’t look at it as a perk. It’s an important part of what I do. I consider it one of my tools.”
Now, before we pummel City Council any more, let’s consider the entire fleet. In one quick skim of the 101-page spreadsheet cataloguing everything from Jeep Cherokees to trash trucks, you’ll find plenty of cars you can eliminate based solely on who’s driving them. It’s easy. Just look for those assigned to “executive” or “administrative” use, which is time-honored city-government code for “perk.” The city spent tens of thousands in 2008 fueling those cars, like a $19,741 SUV for Barry Bessler, chief of staff of the Fairmount Park Commission, and the brand-new $12,748 Cobalt LT for the Capital Program Office. (In case you’re wondering, the Capital Program Office is responsible for “financial oversight of the City’s entire Capital program.”)
So this isn’t a call to City Council alone; after all, they’re making sacrifices, too. Rizzo is putting up with his 2005 four-wheel-drive, which is probably for the best. “I wouldn’t want to bring my personal car into some of these neighborhoods,” he said.

IT’S HARD TO avoid the “P” word when you hear that even the Register of Wills gets a car, and if its chief, Ron Donatucci, weren’t one of those guys that everybody seems to know and love, maybe he wouldn’t have that $25,009 Crown Vic he drives back and forth from South Philly. But don’t call it a perk, says Ron Don, who uses it to fetch files from his archives at 30th Street Station. “You also have a security issue,” he says. “I’m transporting documents like Commodore Barry’s will. I’m not going to load that up and get on the El.”