They have become a time-honored perk at Los Angeles City Hall -- hundreds of city-issued cars doled out to elected leaders and their top deputies.
Now Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to eliminate most of the 229 vehicles in the city's executive motor pool, as well as cars from other fleets, to help close a $155-million shortfall.
But some in City Hall say that stripping away these "home garage" cars, most of which are fuel-efficient, would only undermine Villaraigosa's promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and turn Los Angeles into the "greenest and cleanest big city in America."
Several City Council members last week labeled Villaraigosa's plan shortsighted, arguing that any savings might be offset by reimbursements to workers for racking up mileage on the job and the costs of increased pollution. Under the mayor's proposal, which requires City Council approval, the 18 elected city leaders would be allowed to keep their city-issued wheels.
"We have made great strides in diversifying the fleet to improve our air quality," said Councilwoman Jan Perry, who chairs the council's Energy and Environment Committee and drives a city-issued 2006 Honda Accord hybrid. "It would be a dereliction of our duties to take a step back."
Villaraigosa argues that leaders must set an example as they roll out budget-tightening proposals that would put a financial squeeze on city operations and thousands of workers. He is asking city employees, except those in public safety, to voluntary take five unpaid furlough days by July 1.
His office said that any increase in carbon dioxide emissions would be countered by other budget proposals, including one to sell 512 additional vehicles in the city's vast automotive fleet and others to reduce the city government's fuel consumption to 1998 levels and its energy use by 10%.
The money-saving measures are part of a broader strategy by Villaraigosa to free up money for his top priority -- expanding the Los Angeles Police Department.
"Who in the real world gets this type of privilege, this perk?" asked Deputy Mayor Sean Clegg, who himself declined to drive a city car. "To balance our budget and maintain our core commitment to public safety, we're going to have to tip over some sacred cows. I wouldn't want to be a council person who voted to cut cops and keep cars."
As the mayor and council bicker, both sides hint that the issue may be a run-up to a larger fight over the 1,105 take-home cars in the care of the LAPD.
Villaraigosa's budget proposal calls for eliminating just 31 take-home cars driven by civilian LAPD employees and nine from civilians at the Fire Department, which has 73 take-home vehicles.
Under Villaraigosa's proposal, the 15 council offices would lose 93 of 108 cars, leaving one for each council member.
The city attorney's office would have to give back nine of 10, the city controller's office three of four.
The cuts would also affect 19 department general managers and the city's five public works commissioners.
Villaraigosa's office would lose 27 of its 28 cars, leaving only the mayor with a city-issued sport utility vehicle -- a GMC Yukon.
Among those in Villaraigosa's office who would lose cars: chief of staff Robin Kramer, deputy chiefs of staff Jimmy Blackman and Dan Grunfeld, and all seven deputy mayors.
In all, 236 cars would be returned to the general City Hall motor pool; older cars, in turn, would be sold for a savings of $1.5 million, according to a budget proposal released by the mayor last week.
A field deputy for Councilman Ed Reyes would drive a 1966 Ford Mustang around northeast Los Angeles instead of a 2004 Honda Civic Hybrid.
And a deputy for Councilman Tom LaBonge would use his 1977 International Scout in place of a Civic hybrid.
"The vehicle is a tool to serve the people better, to bring City Hall to the neighborhood," said LaBonge, who drives a less-than-fuel-efficient city-issued 2005 Ford Crown Victoria. "I would hope the mayor's office would rethink" its plan.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl, a Villaraigosa ally whose sizable council district stretches from Pacific Palisades to Westchester, said of his 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid, "I don't consider it a perk. It's essential."
But City Controller Laura Chick, a former council member, said elected leaders use the cars to entice talented deputies who are in demand around City Hall.
"It's become a traditional perk," said Chick, who would get to keep her 2004 Toyota Prius Hybrid under the mayor's plan. "It's part of the package."
Councilman Jack Weiss, who drives his own 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee, said that eliminating city-issued cars makes sense in light of the dire budget outlook.
"If it's a choice of belt-tightening versus new cops, we ought to hire new cops."
A spokesman for City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo declined to comment, saying Delgadillo would follow the council's decision. Delgadillo made headlines last summer when his city-issued SUV was damaged while being driven by his wife at a time when her license had been suspended.
Even as Villaraigosa's plans threaten to put more conventional cars on the road, his spokesman counters, the mayor is aggressively promoting other policies to reduce the city's carbon emissions.
Just last week, Villaraigosa presided over the groundbreaking for the 8,000-acre Pine Tree Wind Project in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles, believed to represent the largest city-owned wind farm in the country.
When completed in 2009, it is expected to provide enough electricity for 56,000 homes, saving at least 200,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually, or the equivalent of taking 35,000 cars off the street, the mayor's office said.
Aides to the mayor insist that the environmental drawback of eliminating the take-home cars would be minor compared with the enormous reductions in gas emissions made possible by the city's growing portfolio of renewable energy.
The mayor's deputies will probably make that argument as they press his plan to eliminate the executive motor fleet.
They see his proposal as the opening salvo in negotiations that are expected to produce a compromise: Field deputies and others who drive around the city as part of their job might be able to keep their city-issued cars.
"I think we have to seriously look at every one of the proposals the mayor has put forward to save money," said Greuel, who drives a city-issued 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid.
"Everything is on the table."