In one of her first acts as the city's chief fiscal watchdog, Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean accepted a new, taxpayer-financed Mercury Grand Marquis to ferry her around town.
Last week, when McLean assumed the post, she said she would not be a low-profile comptroller who would serve as a "passive monitor with no voice."
Yesterday, she defended the purchase of the top-of-the-line Mercury, which cost $19,889, by saying: "They [the taxpayers] didn't get a car for Jackie McLean. The car goes with the office."
The Board of Estimates approved the purchase of the sedan last week.
"It was a good deal," said McLean, adding that the purchase price was less than the car normally sells for.
At some point after McLean was elected comptroller, Public Works Director George G. Balog told her she was entitled to a new full-size car because her predecessor's car had more than 50,000 miles on it and he presented her with a list of such vehicles to choose from.
McLean bristled when asked if it was inappropriate for the city to purchase a luxury car at a time when the city is buried in a deep fiscal crisis that has resulted in layoffs of city workers.
"The City Council president has a car. The mayor has a car. The city solicitor has a car. The public works director has a car. And there are several hundred city employees with access to cars, some of whom drive them home to the county," said McLean. "This is something that has gone on for years and years."
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke currently is grappling with ways to absorb a $13.3 million cut in state aid to Baltimore announced this week. And, earlier this month, about 126 city employees lost their jobs after the city lost $27 million in state aid.
The comptroller sits on the Board of Estimates and is responsible for monitoring city spending. McLean said a full-size car and driver is a long-standing perk for the comptroller, who is paid $53,000 annually. McLean justified the car-and-driver perk by pointing out that four employees in her office receive more than she does.
Former Comptroller Hyman A. Pressman had access to a Ford Crown Victoria -- a large car with a 114-inch wheelbase, equal to that of the Grand Marquis. For many years, Pressman had refused the perk. But he accepted a car and driver in 1989, after his health began a dramatic decline.
McLean received a new car because Pressman's Ford had run up 56,000 miles.
"When cars start to get over 50,000 miles we start to look at turning them over," said Balog, who oversees 6,000 city-owned vehicles, from garbage trucks to executive cars. "After that point, they start to have problems and our maintenance costs go up."
tTC McLean's new car is twilight blue and has shadow blue cloth interior. Balog said it has a six-way power driver's seat and that a city mobile telephone was installed for McLean's use.
McLean, whose family operates a Baltimore-based travel agency, is listed as owning three vehicles. They are a 1989 BMW, a 1989 Jeep truck and a 1987 Ford van, according to the state Motor Vehicle Administration.
McLean said she is selling the van, which she had used during her campaign, and that her daughter has taken the Jeep with her to college.
"Instead of focusing in on a lousy, little $19,000 car, I think the press should be focusing on more important matters," she said. "An automobile that is assigned to the comptroller's office is like a drop in the bucket."
For instance, McLean has said that the city needs to develop humane ways of downsizing government and should look at privatizing some operations to save taxpayer money.
"I have to have transportation," she said. "My predecessor was a person who stayed in his office. I'm not that type of comptroller. I want to get out in the city and see what's going on."
McLean said she will use a driver from a city pool only for late-night appointments or when she anticipates parking will be a problem.