There ought to be a rule of thumb: If an excuse sounds like something you wouldn't buy from your kids when they're trying to get out of trouble, you shouldn't buy it from elected officials either.
So when City Council members in Atlantic City try to hang on to their taxpayer-financed cars by saying things like "Other people do it too," or "It's not that much money," no one should listen.
The city has purchased "take-home" vehicles for eight of its nine councilmen. Sixth Ward Councilman Tim Mancuso turned down the perk. On Monday, Councilman-at-large George Tibbitt said he was returning his vehicle.
As we've said before, as New Jersey State Comptroller Matthew Boxer has said, as the Department of Community Affairs' Division of Local Government Services - which oversees the city's troubled budget - has said repeatedly, part-time public officials shouldn't get and don't need government vehicles. Particularly in a city that's four miles long.
And, of course, they certainly shouldn't get them in a city that's facing a financial crisis.
Atlantic City borrowed $35 million last year, and is borrowing another $103 million this year, to help cover the cost of ongoing tax appeals, primarily from the city's struggling casinos, which have seen revenue and the value of their properties fall in the face of a national recession and increased competition.
The city's ratable base has dropped from $20.5 billion in 2010 to about $16 billion today. Using the current tax rate, that equals a drop in annual tax revenue of about $40 million.
Shockingly, that very budget crisis is cited by some council members in a tortured defense of the vehicle perk. The city is in such financial trouble, they say, why should anyone care about my $21,000 car?
OK. Here's an attempt to answer that odd question: People should care because the way you get out of financial trouble is to spend money responsibly.
And people should care because the city can only get back on solid financial ground by cutting expenses dramatically, across the board. Government officials can't ask city worker unions to face that reality unless they are willing to face it themselves.
In May, the city purchased an SUV for a councilman just hours after the Division of Local Government Services had approved the city's 2012 budget. DLGS Director Tom Neff said, "That just seemed to fly in the face of what we're trying to do here." Exactly.
Now the decision of whether or not to cruise around town in a taxpayer-financed vehicle may be taken out of Council members' hands.
At least two state lawmakers have announced plans to introduce laws that would ban publicly financed cars for part-time public officials. Such a measure would likely sail through the Legislature.
How much better it would be if Council members recognized how foolish and selfish this practice makes them appear and voluntarily gave it up.
That would go a long way toward showing they are on the side of those who are trying to turn the city around and that they are more interested in the city's success than in their own perks.