Statement: “My opponent Lorie Zapf is the only person on the Council to take the $800-a-month car allowance. That means she is the only person asking you, the taxpayer, to pay for her car, at this point, over $30,000,” District 2 City Council candidate Sarah Boot said at an April 16 forum.

Political newcomer Sarah Boot argues she’s a better fit to represent San Diego’s beach communities than one-term City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who’s now running in a new district in the wake of changes to the city’s electoral map.

Boot, a Democrat, pounced on Zapf early in an April 16 forum, claiming she’s the only City Council member to receive an $800-a-month car allowance. (Jim Morrison and Mark Schwartz are also vying for the District 2 seat but didn’t appear at the forum.)

Boot said that monthly allotment has added up to more than $30,000 since Zapf took office in December 2010.

Zapf regularly touts fiscal reforms she’s championed as a City Council member, so Boot is seizing on what she views as hypocrisy: Zapf collecting a perk on the taxpayers’ dime.

I decided to break Boot’s claim into two parts because there are two crucial claims here.

Claim No. 1: Zapf collects an $800 monthly car allowance and has received more than $30,000 from this source.

Determination: True

Analysis: The city has long given elected officials the option to receive monthly payouts to cover the costs of criss-crossing the city, and for years, most City Council members collected.

Then, in 2008, the San Diego Union-Tribune exposed a wrinkle in state law that made it unclear whether municipalities could write lump-sum checks for car expenses to elected officials and noted that San Diego’s $800-a-month auto allowances were among the highest in the state. San Diego City Council members responded by declining to take the cash. Two years later, then-Attorney General Jerry Brown declared the flat-rate payouts kosher.

Zapf was elected to represent District 6 in December 2010 and began taking the allowance. She’s received $800 a month in the three years since, according to the city comptroller’s office.

City records show she’s collected more than $32,300 during that time.

This makes this portion of Boot’s statement true.

Zapf defended her choice to take this monthly cash at last week’s event, saying her decision to opt out of the city’s pension system more than makes up the difference. I calculated estimated pension costs for City Council members who take them over the last three years and found that Zapf’s decision saved the city roughly $20,000 annually while in office.

A spokeswoman for the city’s pension system said countless variables make it difficult to gauge how much the city might save over the long haul thanks to Zapf’s decision to decline a city pension. Still, it’s clear Zapf’s decision not to take a pension will save taxpayers more than her decision to take a car allowance will cost them.

Claim No. 2: Zapf is the only City Council member to collect a car allowance.

Determination: False

Analysis: Zapf has collected far more in auto reimbursements than any of her City Council colleagues.

City Council members David Alvarez, Marti Emerald and Todd Gloria don’t collect a car allowance but they do report their mileage to the city. They’re reimbursed on a sliding scale based on the number of miles they drive per month, ranging from 56 cents to 62 cents a mile. The charges cover gas and wear and tear on their vehicles.

Gloria has racked up the most miles in recent years. Last fiscal year, he collected about $2,460.

That’s far less than the lump-sum option. City Council members who report their travels would have to rack up more than 17,000 miles a year to match the city’s $9,600 annual auto allowance.

But Zapf isn’t the only City Council member who’s gone with the latter alternative, which also incorporates vehicle financing, insurance and government fees, among other costs.

City Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, who has represented District 4 since last June, has also collected the auto allowance. City records show she’s received nearly $8,500 since she took office.

So while Zapf does collect an $800 monthly car allowance and has received more than $32,000, Boot’s claim that she’s the only City Council member to take the perk is false.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning. 

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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