Barb Johnson used to collect $400 monthly for car expenses as a Minneapolis City Council member. Now that she has to keep track of mileage like regular city grunts, she's collected only $651.61 so far this year.

The council president's example appears to illustrate that the car allowance vastly overpaid actual expenses to council members who collected it, but who were moved by constituent outrage to abolish the allowance last December in favor of collecting mileage.

The total car expense bill for the 13 council members has dropped from nearly $30,000 in previous years to less than $1,800 through July this year.

Most council members seem to be eating their mileage, with only four submitting claims through the end of July. In most cases, the council members claiming mileage payments are the ones whose responsibilities most often take them outside the city for work.

Elizabeth Glidden, for example, is one of the few members whose mileage claims grew in 2011. She claimed a total of $254 in mileage in 2010, but that's jumped to $640.95 through August. The reason, she said, is her responsibility as the council's point person at the Legislature. She said she only claims mileage when she leaves the city, but with a longer regular session this year, involving a slew of new lawmakers, plus a special session, her trips to St. Paul multiplied.

Glidden was topped by Johnson, who attributed her total to business at the Legislature as well, noting such critical legislative issues for the city as merging its pension funds and keeping local government aid.

The other council members who claimed mileage through July are Betsy Hodges, who claimed $387.51 that she said was mostly for her duties with the League of Minnesota Cities, and Lisa Goodman, who claimed $87.92.

Goodman was among the council members who used to collect the auto allowance of $400 monthly. When asked if her 2011 mileage total meant the allowance overpaid her before, she said it did not.

"I'm eating mileage," she said, explaining that she often forgets to record it because she usually has her mind on what she'll be discussing at her next stop.

Mileage is intended to cover only actual auto costs, and therefore isn't taxable, unlike the car allowance.

The monthly allowances, which many members declined, were abolished at the instigation of Meg Tuthill, who was completing her first year on the council. She argued that council members should get the same reimbursement as other city workers who use their cars.

"It's just so much more responsible when we need to keep track of things when it's not our money," she said.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438