Just before toll rates went up this month on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, tollpayers gave Turnpike Commission Chairman William K. Lieberman a belated Christmas present: a $40,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Lieberman, a Pittsburgh insurance executive, received the 2013 Grand Cherokee on Dec. 28 to replace a 2012 Grand Cherokee that he had received a year earlier. That one cost turnpike users $38,448.
The year-old Cherokee was handed down to fellow Commissioner Pasquale "Pat" Deon, a Bucks County restaurateur and beer distributor (and SEPTA board chairman), to replace his turnpike-issued 2008 Dodge Magnum.
The other two commissioners, Carlisle lawyer Michael Pratt and former Democratic State Sen. William Lincoln of Uniontown, drive 2011 Ford Explorers that cost $33,945 each.
A free car, for personal as well as official use, is a perk of being one of four turnpike commissioners, along with a $26,000 salary ($28,500 for Lieberman as chairman), a no-limit expense account, and a free pass on all tolls.
Only Barry Schoch, the state secretary of transportation, who serves as a fifth turnpike commissioner, does not get a free car (or a turnpike salary). He uses his own vehicle, a Chrysler 300, a PennDot spokesman said.
By contrast, the commissioners of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority get no free cars, no salaries, no free passes for tolls, and no reimbursement for using their own vehicles, NJTA spokesman Thomas Feeney said.
In Pennsylvania, the free cars, which come with free gas and maintenance, were criticized by outgoing Auditor General Jack Wagner this month as an "overly generous" perk, especially when the turnpike is billions of dollars in debt and its tolls are rising every year.
Tolls went up again Jan. 6, with the maximum cash toll now $39.15 for autos. (E-ZPass users get a discount of about 22 percent.)
"We do not believe that part-time commissioners require permanently assigned vehicles," state auditors wrote. "Further, we found no convincing reason to allow commissioners to use commission-purchased vehicles for personal use."
Between Jan. 1, 2007, and Aug. 31, 2011, the turnpike spent $406,497 buying new cars for commissioners (that does not include the $39,799 for Lieberman's newest Jeep), and $29,642 on fuel and $20,328 on maintenance.
The commissioners' primary job is to attend twice-monthly meetings in Harrisburg, and the auditors said they could use their own cars.
"The Turnpike Commission should discontinue the practice of providing personal vehicles for the commissioners and instead should reimburse commissioners for vehicle mileage incurred for business use only, at current Internal Revenue Service rates," the auditors wrote.
A state law enacted in 2007 says no turnpike commissioner "shall be paid or receive any fee or other compensation other than salary and expenses provided by law for any activity directly pertaining to the duties of the commission."
Craig Shuey, acting chief executive officer of the Turnpike Commission, said Tuesday that "our view is that assigned vehicles are appropriate and necessary for the job."
"We ask a lot of our commissioners, who receive a salary of $26,000 to $28,500 - which has not been increased since 1988 - and a company car is fairly common in the public and private sectors. The fact is, these assigned vehicles are essential tools that allow our commissioners to effectively perform their jobs," Shuey said in a statement.
"When their entire compensation package is considered - including salary, vehicle use and other benefits - the Pennsylvania Turnpike is getting a value from commissioners that exceeds the investment in their compensation packages given the extensive experience in their fields."
Shuey said the Turnpike Commission intended "to analyze and review the expenses of commissioners and staff to ensure that only the most necessary and reasonable expenses are approved."