Niles gasoline policy invites much misuse

For decades, some Niles city employees have been filling up their personal automobile gas tanks with fuel from the city’s pumps without ever reporting how much they used on city business.

Workers were permitted to use up to 15 gallons a week, even if they didn’t need it for their jobs. When we requested to see records outlining mileage or expense reports for these workers, we were told they never existed.

The issue came to light when Mayor Tom Scarnecchia recently fired and then, days later, reinstated a Niles city worker accused of theft for allegedly allowing his brother to fill up at the city gas pumps. He simply thought it was OK to give away the remainder of his 15-gallon allotment.

When asked to explain the situation, Scarnecchia first placed the blame on the shoulders of former Mayor Ralph Infante, whom Scarnecchia said had established past fuel practices.

But it was under Scarnecchia’s watch that a new contract was inked last year, including much of the same language as that of his predecessor.

Union contract language states “meter readers shall be granted a weekly gasoline allowance for the use of their personal automobiles while discharging official business. Such allowance shall not exceed 15 gallons per week for meter reader.”

Scarnecchia last week was critical of Infante, pointing out that even though the contract language specifies the gas was to be used while conducting official duties, Infante allowed the employees to use gas as another form of compensation.

Still, the practice continued after Scarnecchia took office, despite the fact that a new vehicle policy adopted in September now requires workers to submit forms signed by their supervisors attesting to the “performance of work” while using their personal vehicles. When asked to explain, this time Scarnecchia placed blame on his former Safety-Service Director Jim DePasquale, whom he recently fired.

Scarnecchia said DePasquale never distributed the new vehicle-use policy to union members and, in fact, had misinformed some city workers about who was required to follow the policy.

The first problem, of course, is that Scarnecchia lacked control over his administration.

But it goes far beyond that. The policy of allowing workers to fill up their personal tanks at the city pumps and then go to work is seriously flawed. It’s akin to the old adage of closing the stable door after the horse has already bolted.

In fact, a more effective way to monitor and account for fuel used for city business is to require workers to purchase gasoline, record their mileage and then seek reimbursement from the city.

Employees for decades have been allowed to put fuel into vehicles they did not use for work and into portable containers, according to Scarnecchia.

That has set a difficult pattern to break in this city where oversight has been lax for decades and rules have been loosely enforced, triggering immeasurable waste of taxpayer money and the current state of fiscal emergency.

It’s time, now, for the mayor to reign in workers, establish more stringent rules and then ensure they are being enforced. If that doesn’t happen, he should blame only himself.