Melrose Park Mayor Ron Serpico used to get around in a Ford SUV leased by his municipal government.
No longer – he ditched that Explorer a few months ago and began using his new personal vehicle, a 2014 Jaguar XJL, a luxury sedan retailing in the $70,000 to $80,000 range.
But taxpayers are still helping underwrite Serpico’s auto expenses: He recently started accepting a $500-a-month stipend from the village to help cover the cost of the Jaguar, the Better Government Association and FOX 32 learned.
And that stipend was created for Serpico around the time he got the new car.
Serpico, who works as a private attorney in addition to serving as the $100,000-a-year mayor and liquor commissioner of the working-class western suburb, was unapologetic.
“Let me tell you something. I’m 63 years old and I’m not a priest. I didn’t take a vow of poverty,” Serpico said. “Been working as a lawyer for 37 years. And I really don’t think I have to explain my life to you or anybody else.”
Besides, Serpico’s spokesman insisted that handling auto expenses this way is actually saving taxpayers money — because the cost of Serpico’s old municipal vehicle was estimated at about $1,000 a month when fuel, insurance, maintenance and lease payments were taken into account.
Serpico “now pays his own gas and insurance . . . he is saving the village an estimated [$6,000] a year,” according to the spokesman, Gary Mack.
But if those figures are right, has the village been paying too much for its fleet? The BGA requested records on the number of leased and owned municipal vehicles and the associated expenses, though the village has yet to turn that over.
More than a decade ago, Serpico campaigned in part on reducing car lease expenses in the village, according to an old political brochure in which he asserts “this Mayor has never used a Village vehicle for personal use.”
Either way, Mack’s money-saving claim assumes Serpico’s former municipal ride is no longer part of the village fleet.
But it is. After Serpico stopped using the SUV in the fall – that’s when he got the Jaguar, which Illinois secretary of state records indicate is being leased by Serpico – the SUV was assigned to the Melrose Park public works department and still is being paid for by taxpayers.
“They need a car right now, they have not gotten a car so they’re using this one until the lease is up,” Mack said about public works employees. When the lease expires – apparently in the spring – the department will either renew the deal or otherwise get a different vehicle, Mack said.
Mack said the village created the $500 stipend for Serpico around the time he stopped using the Explorer. The stipend can be used for any expenditure, not just a vehicle, so it’s “irrelevant” the money is going toward a Jaguar, Mack said.
The $500 could go for “bubble gum for the staff, a business meeting with a potential developer . . . a skateboard, five Jaguars . . . it doesn’t matter,” Mack said. “The bottom-line is he’s saving taxpayers a boatload of money.”
Melrose Park is certainly not rolling in cash.
The village’s police and fire pension plans are among the worst funded in the Chicago region, with only about a third of the funding levels they should have to fully cover retirements. That’s largely because the village has failed to funnel enough money their way.
The community has about 25,000 residents, with a median household income of about $45,000 a year, and roughly one in six residents living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Asked whether it’d make more sense from a taxpayer perspective to do away with all vehicle subsidies for the mayor, Mack said Melrose Park – a community run by the mayor, while many suburbs have a full-time administrator running things – is far from the only town with such extras.
True, though benefits in nearby towns vary.
In Elmwood Park, the mayor gets no municipal car or vehicle allowance and a mayor and liquor commissioner salary of $43,000. The village manager there draws a base salary of about $160,000, plus $375 a month for auto expenses and $65 a month for phone expenses.
In River Forest, the mayor gets no vehicle, car stipend or salary. The village administrator gets a salary of about $140,000, a $5,000-a-year vehicle allowance and $800 a year for phones and technology.