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Mayor, council consider plan to limit number of city-owned vehicles being taken home

June 09, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN - Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and all five members of the City Council said they're willing to consider a proposal to limit the number of city-owned vehicles that municipal employees are allowed to drive home after work.

The mayor and council are to discuss the proposal during a work session on Tuesday. Last week, city officials were compiling a list of individual vehicle expenses to present to the council on Tuesday, City Finance Director Alfred Martin said.

Bruchey said he believed the proposal to limit take-home vehicles was "worth looking into ... Anything's worth looking at ... We'll have to look at the figures."

Bruchey said most of the take-home vehicles are necessary and, as a result, too few would be eliminated to create significant savings.

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Documents show the city provides 48 of its employees with take-home vehicles. Of those, 35 are driven by employees to their homes in other parts of Washington County or out of state. The remaining 13 vehicles are driven home by employees who reside in the city, documents show.

Almost one-third of the vehicles that are taken home are driven by police officers who are members of the SWAT unit, Bruchey said. The officers can respond to emergencies from home more quickly by driving directly to a site where they are needed than by going first to the police department to pick up city-owned vehicles.

Martin said he doesn't know how much money the city spends to operate take-home vehicles because those expenses -- including fuel and maintenance -- are not individually tracked. Instead, fuel and maintenance costs are shown in the budget as a line item for each department.

The police department, for example, has $308,243 budgeted for total "vehicle operating expenses" for fiscal year 2008-09. Those expenses are not broken down for each vehicle.

Police Chief Arthur Smith said six of the officers were provided vehicles in exchange for sacrificing a few thousand dollars a year each in overtime.

"The City Council gave that to them by contract," Smith said.

With the exception of fire and police, city employees who drive city-owned vehicles receive a stipend from the city to buy gas, Martin said. They may choose $3 per day or receive mileage based on the rate set by the Internal Revenue Service -- currently 50.5 cents per mile, he said.

The stipend is added to the employee's wages and then taxed as income, Martin said.

It is important to note, Martin said, that employees are prohibited from using city-owned vehicles for personal use.

In May, Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer asked city staff for the addresses of the city employees in the take-home vehicle program so she could quantify the city's fuel costs.

"The majority of the (take-home vehicles) are gas-guzzling pickups and SUVs," she said last month. "It's a monumental waste of money."

Documents show that 28 SUVs, pickups or vans are driven home by employees of the Public Works, Parks, Fire, Sewer, Water and Light departments. Members of the Hagerstown Police Department take home 19 vehicles, the most of any department. Of those 19 vehicles, 10 are Ford Crown Victorias, documents show.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he also believed it probably would be determined that the take-home vehicles are necessary. The city's violent crimes attorney, for example, drives a city-owned 1999 Honda Accord to crime scenes at all hours, he said. The attorney needs to respond to crime scenes immediately, rather than take time to pick up a vehicle, when the attorney is needed to help manage the investigation, he said.

But, Metzner said, "I'm willing to look at the figures before I make a decision."

Councilman Martin E. Brubaker said he would wait until he sees the figures before he makes a decision.

Councilwoman Alesia Parson-McBean said Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh suggested that the city limit take-home vehicles long before Cromer mentioned the proposal.

"That was an issue that was brought up in the first year of our term (in 2005)," Parson-McBean said. "It's taken that long."

Parson-McBean said city staff did not fulfill Nigh's request to determine how much the take-home vehicle program was costing the city because other issues came up that diverted attention from the subject.

Nigh said she repeatedly asked the city staff for information on fuel costs but didn't get any answers.

"My concern is how the gas in handled," she said. "We have to be more cautious monitoring miles with the price of gas the way it is."

Nigh said she also wanted to find out more about the costs associated with vehicle maintenance and insurance.

"We have to be cautious at all ends," Nigh said. "I'm not seeing any of that."

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