The folks known for telling you to “Spare the air” and avoid driving might not be taking their own advice. The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, the regional, state-run agency in charge of managing the air quality in nine Bay Area counties, has a program giving its high-ranking staffers hundreds of dollars every month to subsidize their car use.

According to the Ex, each month, compensation ranges from $500 to $675 per employee taking advantage of the program. The agency estimates it will spend just over $31,000 on these subsidies, granted solely to top level staffers, this year alone.

Despite its hefty price tag, the subsidy is very narrowly targeted. A mere twelve of the district’s over 350 employee are eligible for the car allowance and, of those, only half are actively taking advantage of the program.

Employees are allowed to use money from the monthly stipend toward the purchase of their own personal vehicles. However, the district requires those vehicles to be either electric or hybrid-electric.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District was created in 1955 to address air pollution on a regional level; doing things that individual counties, acting on their own, would be unable to accomplish.

The agency is primarily known for its Spare The Air days–when, due to high concentrations of ground-level ozone (the main component of smog), the district issues public warnings urging Bay Area residents to avoid driving as much as possible and take measures to reduce on their air pollution footprint.

District spokesperson Lisa Fasano told the Examiner that since its jurisdiction covers a wide swath of the Bay Area, employees are often required to travel outside of areas with serviceable public transportation options.

Tom Bates, the president of the district’s board and current mayor of Berkeley, agreed with Fasano saying that the car subsidy makes sense because, “some employees travel from areas where public transportation is limited.” Bates added that “most of these cars have the least-possible air emissions.”

Even so, some are calling it hypocritical for an organization working to steer the public away from individual car use to promote driving among its employees.

“Any kind of incentive policy for car ownership or use is incredibly outdated for the air district to have, even if it’s an electric vehicle,” said Stuart Cohen, the Executive Director of the Oakland-based transit advocacy organization TransForm.

As California grapples with a record budget deficit, taxpayers are becoming less tolerant of costly perks being doled out to government employees. Earlier this year, a deeply unpopular car subsidy for California state legislators was drastically slashed after the Chronicle reported that taxpayers were footing the bill for the state’s expensive practice of purchasing cars and then leasing them to legislators at a sharply reduced cost.

On the local level, subsidizing cars for public employees is a long-standing and wide-ranging practice–especially in cases where city staffers are employed in San Francisco but are unable to afford to live within the city limits and thus have to commute in from outlying areas. In 2008, the city was spending over $7 million a year on gas alone for the nearly 250 employees with take-home car privileges.

Based on a survey of car subsidies in a number of Southern California counties, the $500-675 car subsidy given to district employees sits on the low-to-mid end of the spectrum for many similar government programs. The average car allowance given to officials in Riverside Country in 2010 was $550/month, with San Bernadino County topping the list at $1,123/month and Orange and Los Angles counties coming in about in the middle at with $765/month and $620/month respectively.

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