Should officials park take-home vehicles?

Studies find providing key workers with autos can be beneficial

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Vehicle allowances

In some government agencies, including the city of Vancouver and Clark County government, top officials receive a monthly travel stipend in lieu of a take-home vehicle.

• In the county, the county administrator, assessor, auditor, treasurer, prosecuting attorney, clerk, public works director, undersheriff and medical examiner each receive a stipend of $600 per month. That amount will increase to $700 per month in 2013.

• Vancouver’s city manager, assistant city manager, police chief and two assistant police chiefs have monthly stipends of $400 to $600 per month, depending on the position.

Source: Clark County and city of Vancouver

In Clark County, more than 250 publicly owned vehicles are assigned to and taken home by government employees. They’re allowed to use the vehicles for business and commuting to and from work.

Since the economic downturn, cities across the nation, including Vancouver, have reduced the number of take-home vehicles in their fleets and changed their policies on who may take vehicles home at the workday’s close.

Increasing gas prices, shrinking budgets and occasional abuse have spurred the changes, and in some cases, cities report savings as a result.

But reducing take-home vehicles may not always result in savings. A recent analysis of Clark County’s fleet requested by The Columbian shows nominal differences in cost per mile for take-home vehicles compared with other fleet vehicles. Other research indicates that, at least in some cases, especially those of emergency responders, take-home vehicles can be more efficient in terms of cost and public safety.

“There is a tendency by the general public to think take-home vehicles are nothing but a fringe benefit paid for by taxpayers, but that’s kind of a simplistic view,” said Paul Lauria, president of Mercury Associates Inc., a fleet management consulting firm in Gaithersburg, Md. “By statute, emergency responders are required to stop at a scene in a city-owned vehicle. There’s obviously a benefit to that. It’s extending the time of service that an employee is providing to the community.”

Many cities across the nation have been moving away from the practice of giving officials dedicated vehicles to drive. The city of Vancouver has reduced take-home police and fire vehicles from 92 to 67 since 2008. The city doesn’t provide take-home vehicles to employees who are not emergency responders. The city hasn’t analyzed how much the reduction saved. One reason for that is the reduction in take-home vehicles was partly the consequence of other cost-cutting measures, including eliminating seven police lieutenant positions, said Steven Neal, Vancouver police acting commander of technical services. Lieutenants had been entitled to take-home vehicles.

In Yonkers, N.Y., the city government in February reduced take-home vehicles from 90 to 40, saving an estimated 100,000 miles in commutes to and from employees’ residences, according to Government Fleet Magazine.

Sacramento, Calif. is considering reducing the number of take-home vehicles after an audit found the city spent $455,918 per year paying for those vehicles to be driven to and from employees’ homes, according to The Sacramento Bee.

“Cost of motor pools (in which employees check out a vehicle when they need it) depends on a lot of factors, and those differ by jurisdiction,” said Lauria of Mercury Associates. “If you have to provide storage for the vehicles and real estate is at a premium and you have a lot of equipment, guns, computers you have to securely store, then the cost of vehicle storage alone could be equal or more to the cost of using take-home vehicles.”

Cost also depends on the type of vehicle the city chooses.

Local practices

Clark County’s cities and county government all still have take-home vehicles, ranging from just one in the city of La Center for the police chief to 130 in county government for sheriff’s, fire investigation and public works employees.

Clark Public Utilities sends 21 of its 250 vehicles home with employees so they can respond to emergencies such as power outages, broken water mains and downed trees.

Other government agencies do not offer take-home vehicles, including the port of Vancouver and many school districts.

Vancouver Public Schools doesn’t have assigned take-home vehicles. However, a maintenance vehicle may occasionally be sent home for a night when a crew member is on 24-hour call for an emergency weather or plumbing situation, said spokeswoman Kris Sork. That vehicle must be returned at the end of the shift. Educational Service District 112, which provides specialized services to 30 school districts in Southwest Washington, has two take-home vehicles out of a fleet of 25. The two vehicles are used by the school construction project management team. The vehicles are take-home because project managers have to travel throughout the state for their work, said Tim Merlino, the service district’s chief finance officer.

Battle Ground is the county’s only city that continues to provide a take-home vehicle to its top administrator. Battle Ground City Manager John Williams is provided a white 2010 Ford Escape as part of his employment contract. The city spent about $21,625 to purchase the SUV, but Williams buys his own gas, said Cathy Huber Nickerson, Battle Ground finance director.

“The vehicle is in lieu of giving a city manager vehicle allowance,” said Bonnie Gilberti, Battle Ground executive assistant. “Instead of giving out cash, the vehicle stays in our fleet, and the city owns it.”

Cities often have to offer either a monthly vehicle stipend or a take-home vehicle as a part of compensation packages to attract talent in important positions such as city manager, said Lauria of Mercury Associates.

For other employees, there should be a clear business reason for assigning a take-home vehicle and a way to measure whether taking home the vehicle actually produces the desired results, Lauria said. For example, how many times did the employee respond to an emergency in a month?

In addition to Williams, five police employees and one public works employee receive take-home vehicles in Battle Ground.

The cities of Camas, La Center, Ridgefield, Vancouver and Woodland and the county restrict take-home vehicles to fire and police responders. That’s not to say the cities don’t spend on other types of transportation for employees. Vancouver and the county pay its top administrators a stipend of $400 to $600 per month in lieu of take-home vehicles.

Washougal provides take-home vehicles to three public works employees, in addition to four police and fire employees, for a total of seven. The public works take-home vehicles go to the acting public works director, wastewater manager and street and stormwater manager, according to Jennifer Forsberg, Washougal finance director.

Washougal’s former policy drew attention when Mayor Sean Guard was stopped by the state patrol on Christmas Eve 2010 for flashing the lights of his city-issued 1995 Ford Taurus to pass other vehicles on Interstate 5 near Kelso. Guard later pleaded guilty to impersonating a police officer. The incident prompted the city council to tighten its take-home vehicle policy. Washougal now prohibits elected officials from having assigned city vehicles.

Advantages

Despite potential for abuse, take-home vehicles have some advantages. For fire and police, take-home vehicles can reduce response times to emergencies and increase productivity, according to a 2004 study of the city of Tacoma conducted by Mercury Associates.

The study found checking out a vehicle from a police station and packing it each day with equipment used work time and in emergency situations, ate up precious minutes.

In Vancouver, police officers who had their take-home vehicles taken away now share vehicles with other officers on opposite shifts. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes each day for each officer to inspect and prepare a vehicle for their shift, Neal said.

When Tacoma police officers switched from shared vehicles to take-home vehicles, they saved an average of about 40 minutes each workday in not having to check out a vehicle from the pool and transfer their gear at the beginning of each shift, according to the Mercury study.

The average Vancouver police officer earns more than $36 per hour, said spokeswoman Kim Kapp. So if it took an officer 30 minutes combined to load and unload a vehicle, that would cost the city an average of about $18 per day for each officer.

“The main reason for the savings was due to increased officer productivity as a result of not having to check out pool cars and transfer gear into and out of them,” the Tacoma study stated.

The study also found take-home vehicles were better maintained and had a longer lifespan than pool vehicles. Employees tended to take better care of them than shared vehicles because they saw them as their own. There also was less wear and tear, as fewer people were using each vehicle.

An analysis by Clark County found that costs per mile to operate a take-home vehicle were similar to that of a pool vehicle. For instance, a take-home passenger sedan in the Fire Marshal’s Office cost about 15 cents per mile to operate, including fuel, repair and maintenance. The same vehicle in the county’s vehicle pool cost 21 cents per mile, the according to the analysis.

In the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, take-home vehicles cost slightly more than pool vehicles. A full-size sedan assigned to a deputy to take home cost 37 cents per mile compared with 30 cents per mile for the same vehicle in the vehicle pool, the analysis found.

However, the Tacoma study cautioned that limits should be imposed on the amount of commuting subsidized by the city in order to control costs. Lauria of Mercury Associates recommended asking employees to pay for the cost of driving the vehicle past a certain number of miles.

City of Ridgefield has a similar policy in place. Ridgefield gives its police officers take-home vehicles on the condition that they live within 10 miles of their station to control fuel costs and wear and tear, said Kay Kammer, Ridgefield city clerk. Five out of six police officers meet that criterion, Kammer said,

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com.