Action News 5 Investigates - Luxury Leases

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - The Cadillac Escalade and the Cadillac DTS.

They're considered high-end, luxury-class vehicles.

You may not own one yourself, but if you live in Memphis or Shelby County, you're paying for Mayors Willie Herenton and AC Wharton to each have their own.

"It is a luxury car, and it carries a higher price tag," Shelby County Chief Administrative Officer Jim Huntzicker said in a recent interview.

Higher price, indeed.  Herenton's 2008 Escalade costs taxpayers $1,200 each month - more than $14,000 a year.  Wharton's DTS costs just over $1,300 a month, totaling more than $16,000 a year.

It's a high-priced perk that comes with being on call 24/7.

"You could go to any (city), down to the smallest cities in Mississippi and Arkansas, and you'll see the same type of vehicle that we use, they also have," City of Memphis General Services Director Estrice Boone said.

"I don't think that any mayor in any city would want to embarrass their mayor with an old junk vehicle," he added.

Not really.  Take a look at what mayors in other cities similar to Memphis and Shelby County drive:

  • Nashville Mayor Karl Dean does not have a city-issued vehicle.
  • Birmingham Mayor Larry Langford does not have a city-issued vehicle.
  • Charlotte's Pat McCrory doesn't have a city-issued vehicle either, and gets only $4,800 a year in car allowance.
  • Louisville mayor Jerry Abramson recently went green with a Ford Hybrid Escape. (Click here to hear the Mayor talk about his vehicle)
  • Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin rides in a 2008 Ford Taurus - for official use only.  She's not allowed to take it home.

Action News 5's Andrew Douglas asked Herenton and Wharton if high-dollar luxury leases are the best way to spend taxpayer money.

"That is so minuscule in terms of what government is about and expenses," Herenton said.

"I don't even get involved in those negotiations," Wharton said.

"You don't want to make a comment on that," Douglas replied.

"No," Wharton said.  "I don't know enough about it."

But a memo addressed to Mayor Wharton in October 2007, and uncovered by the Action News 5 Investigators, states that "trading the 2006 Cadillac DTS to an upgraded model" was necessary because of the "type of wear" on the vehicle, "the heavier usage during the mayor's final three years in office", and the fact that "no one would want to put 30,000-plus miles a year on their own personal vehicle."

The memo states a conscious decision was made to spend an extra $2,100 a year of tax payer money so Wharton could avoid having to drive his own car.

"When everybody's asked to make sacrifices, you have to ask how much sacrifices you want to make starting from the top down," University of Memphis professor Dr. Larry Moore said.

Moore, who is also a lawyer, said he believes it is time for both mayor to look closely at cutting unnecessary costs.

"I have no doubt that both of the mayors are going to rethink this, because this is the sort of thing you don't want to have to deal with," he said.

But the mayors have dealt with it before.  In 2005, city and county leaders promised to re-think the Cadillac leases they were locked into then.  Herenton had an Escalade, while Wharton had a sedan.

Three years later, the mayors are in newer models with higher leases, again fueling debate.

"Isn't their another cost-effective manner to handle than a lease that's $1,300 a month?  Maybe purchasing a vehicle that isn't luxury based," Andrew Douglas asked Shelby County CAO Jim Huntzicker.

"Oh, I think when this one comes up, we'll probably look at some other alternatives," Huntzicker replied.

That was the county's response.  Memphis General Services Director Estrice Boone had a different take all together.

"Is there any way that there could be a more cost effective way than having a $1,200 a month lease on a vehicle?" Douglas asked.

"I don't see why we should embarrass our mayor," Boone replied.

And Mayor Herenton himself didn't see why taxpayers should question his vehicle.

"There's no substance to that question," he said. "You have a good day."

Leases for each of the Mayors' Cadillacs are for two years.  Money spent on the cars was approved by the Memphis City Council and the Shelby County Commission, respectively, - the same two bodies who said three years ago that cash for Cadillacs may not be the best way to spend your tax-dollars.


  • Nashville, TN - Mayor Karl Dean - No car
  • Birmingham, AL - Mayor Larry Langford - No car
  • Charlotte, NC - Mayor Pat McCrory - No car/$4,800 per year allowance
  • Louisville, KY - Mayor Jerry Abramson - Ford Hybrid Escape
  • Atlanta, GA - Mayor Shirley Franklin - Ford Taurus
  • Memphis, TN - Mayor Willie Herenton - Cadillac Escalade ($1200 per month)
  • Shelby County, TN - Mayor AC Wharton - Cadillac DTS ($1348.94 per month)

Click here to send an email to Andrew Douglas.