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Officials say take-home vehicle policy isn't wasteful

June 08, 2008|By JOSHUA BOWMAN

WASHINGTON COUNTY - As gas prices continue to climb, prompting some to question the value of giving take-home vehicles to government employees, Washington County officials defended the practice last week, saying it is not the money-waster that some people think it is.

"When gas prices go up, take-home vehicles are an easy target," said County Administrator Gregory B. Murray, who drives a county-issued Chevrolet Impala to and from work.

"People say, 'If you didn't have them, look at all the miles and money you'd save.' But that's just not the case," he said.

With gasoline prices approaching $4 per gallon, governments are examining their take-home vehicle policies as they look for ways to cut rising fuel costs.

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In the last six months, elected officials in Howard and Allegany counties in Maryland have ordered reviews of policies that allow government employees to have a paid car, truck or sport utility vehicle (SUV).

Last month, Hagerstown City Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer said the city should limit the number of take-home vehicles it provides to its employees.

The council will discuss the cost of the city's program during Tuesday's work session.

"It's a waste of money," Cromer said.

"With the price of gas the way it is; gas keeps going up, up, up. It's not fair that taxpayers are paying for this," she said.

The Washington County Commissioners, however, said they do not think the county's policy needs to be changed.

"The county's policy is not as abusive as some taxpayers might think it is," Commissioners President John F. Barr said.

Documents provided to The Herald-Mail show that 126 Washington County employees are assigned take-home vehicles. Of those, 79 are members of the Washington County Sheriff's Department.

Some employees of the Highway, Permits and Inspections, Water Quality and Engineering departments also have take-home vehicles, as do several department heads.

Of the 47 nonpolice take-home vehicles, 26 are pickup trucks, 14 are SUVs, four are vans and three are cars.

The policy

According to a written policy governing the use of vehicles and equipment, the county offers take-home vehicles to some employees "for the benefit of the county so that an employee can perform his or her job more efficiently."

The policy prohibits county employees from using the vehicles for personal use "except for commuting and circumstances approved by the employee's department head."

"It's definitely not a perk for an employee to have that vehicle," said Edwin Plank, director of the county's Highway Department. "It benefits the citizens of Washington County."

Eleven Highway Department employees, including Plank, have county-issued, full-size 4X4 pickup trucks.

Plank said the trucks are vital when the Highway Department is called in the middle of the night to plow snow or, in cases such as Wednesday's severe thunderstorms, to clear trees and debris from county roads.

Plank said all of the department's trucks are fitted with snowplows and stocked with emergency equipment that allow the employees to respond quicker in emergencies than if they had to drive to their office to pick up a vehicle.

"If they're calling for snow, my phone starts ringing at 2 or 3 in the morning from the school board wanting to know if they need to close school," Plank said. "I can't make those decisions from the edge of my bed."

Permits and Inspections Director Daniel F. DiVito said giving his inspectors take-home vehicles allows them to extend their workday.

Inspectors can download their assignments at home and make stops on the way in and out of the office, DiVito said.

"It puts them out in the field faster and keeps them out longer," DiVito said.

DiVito, Plank and Environmental Management Director Julie Pippel, whose departments have the majority of the county's nonpolice take-home vehicles, said their employees are on call 24/7 because they have the cars.

"We get multiple emergency call outs every week," Pippel said. "Having a car stocked with tools at home saves us time, which in cases like sewer overflows also saves us money in fines. Those fines could outweigh the cost of gas very quickly."

The cost

The cost to the county of providing take-home vehicles, however, is unclear.

In response to an e-mailed question about the cost incurred to provide take-home vehicles to county employees, such as additional expenses for gasoline, insurance and maintenance, Budget and Finance Director Debra S. Murray wrote, "Budget and Finance does not break out the cost on what is spent on a 'take home' vehicle."

In total, the county is budgeting almost $2 million for fuel costs in fiscal 2009, according to county documents.

That money, however, pays for gasoline and diesel for the county's entire fleet, which totals more than 1,000 vehicles and equipment, from County Commuter buses to weed whackers.

Each department is given a budget for fuel, maintenance and repairs on its vehicles at the beginning of every fiscal year.

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