City leaders are looking to find an alternate way to compensate elected officials for using their personal vehicles for work-related travel since ending the fuel card program for the mayor and city representatives last week.

Interim City Manager Cary Westin, in an email statement to El Paso Matters, said he is reviewing a proposed allowance policy for the City Council to consider. Any fuel benefit policy would have to be approved by the council itself.

“The proposed amended policy will include updated costs and funding. The proposed draft policy will be vetted by the City Attorney’s Office and then brought forward publicly for the council consideration,” Westin said.

Interim El Paso City Manager Cary Westin attends an Ethics Commission hearing on July 19. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

City staff collected the credit cards that allowed council members to gas up at Alon stores months after an audit report found some city representatives used the cards excessively. The audit released in May led to ethics complaints against some city representatives – one of whom received a reprimand. The audit also discovered that the cards were not meant to be issued to the mayor and city representatives.

Elected officials spent about $39,000 on fuel from September 2019 through April, according to documents obtained by El Paso Matters through the Texas Public Information Act.

Fuel compensation in other cities

El Paso Matters looked at how other major Texas cities compensate elected officials for using their personal vehicles for work-related travel.

Two of them – Fort Worth and Dallas – provide elected officials standard mileage reimbursement to compensate them for work-related usage. Houston provides them with a vehicle allowance.

In the city of Fort Worth, elected officials are reimbursed for mileage at the IRS standard mileage rate at the time the travel occurred, said Bethany Warner, communications coordinator, in email responses to El Paso Matters.

Warner said the travel and reimbursement policy for elected officials has been in place since 2021. Prior to that, elected officials were included in the city’s general travel policy in place since 2012.

“Travel and expenditure accounts are open to the public and must be able to sustain the test of public review,” the policy for elected officials’ travel states. “Economy, prudence, and necessity are of primary concern, when planning and paying for travel and non-travel related out-of-pocket expenditures. The use of city funds to accommodate personal comfort, convenience, and taste should be minimized.”

In Dallas, elected officials use the same reimbursement that non-elected employees receive, Page Jones Clark, a city spokesperson, told El Paso Matters via email.

“There is no special reimbursement program for our elected officials at the moment,” Clark said.

Austin elected officials receive a $5,400 auto allowance per year, said Shelley Parks, city of Austin spokeswoman.

“The council members and mayor receive an auto allowance, though they can opt out.  We only have one council member, Council Member (Zohaib ‘Zo’) Qadri, who has opted out,” Parks said in emailed responses to El Paso Matters.

In Houston, the mayor and 16 city representatives receive a vehicle allowance of just over $4,200 per year, said Eric Merrick, administrative specialist with the city’s finance department.

Merrick said the allowance amounts to about $350 per month and that the program has been in place for at least 16 years. He said the amount given to elected officials has remained the same for about 10 years, but could not recall what the amount was prior to that.

How did fuel benefit come about?

The Streets and Maintenance Department first implemented a fuel card policy in 2021 following an audit the year prior that found there was no policy in place. However, the adopted policy did not address the cards’ use by elected officials. The fuel card program was meant for city-owned vehicles such as fleets for streets and maintenance, as well as emergency vehicles for the police and fire departments.

A city of El Paso fire truck gets fueled up at the Alon gas station at Doniphan and Redd roads on Friday. (Elida S. Perez / El Paso Matters)(Elida S. Perez / El Paso Matters)

Elected officials were given the fuel cards in 2019 when the City Council approved a contract with Alon Brands, Inc., which included a clause allowing them to use the credit cards.

Elected officials have been receiving some kind of gasoline use benefit since at least 2008. But city officials have not been able to identify who initially authorized the benefit. 

Audit repercussions, recommendations

The audit report released in May included recommendations to end the use of the cards for elected officials and implement a vehicle allowance similar to what some city employees receive.

Westin said a car allowance would not be prohibited by the City Charter’s rules of compensation for elected officials and would not require voter approval.

“A car allowance is not considered compensation or base salary, but rather is intended to reimburse individuals for the costs, including gas, wear and tear on the vehicle, maintenance, and insurance, associated with using their personal vehicle for work-related purposes,” Westin said.

The audit report has placed some elected officials in hot water.

City Rep. Cassandra Hernandez, who used her fuel card the most since September 2019, was formally reprimanded by the city’s Ethics Review Commission Thursday. The letter of reprimand is the second-highest sanction the commission can administer short of a recommendation of removal from office. Hernandez maintains she did nothing wrong.

The ethics commission will also hold hearings for complaints filed against city Reps. Alexsandra Annello and Brian Kennedy related to the fuel cards. The complaints will be reviewed by the commission at later dates, which have not been set.

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...