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Cars too pricey a perk, auditors say

But the county doesn't plan to eliminate the take-home vehicle program.

By JOSE CARDENAS
Published May 22, 2007


Pinellas County could save tens of thousands of dollars a year by asking 10 high-ranking officials to hand in the keys to their take-home cars, county auditors have concluded.

It cost $134, 300 to maintain the 10 cars over a three-year period, according to a new audit by the Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court.

By comparison, auditors said it would have cost only $23, 200 to reimburse the employees at 44.5 cents a mile for the work-related miles put on their personal vehicles.

The audit called for the elimination of the take-home vehicle program. It did not consider the use of take-home cars in the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The audit examined the practice of allowing 10 county emergency, airport and communications employees to take their government cars home.

The take-home vehicles include cars and sports utility vehicles such as the GMC Yukon, Suburban and Safari Van, the Ford Explorer, Crown Victoria and Taurus, and the Chevrolet Blazer and Malibu.

Employees use the vehicles, which range from the 1999 to 2007 model year, for their daily work duties as well as emergencies.

But the audit found that the employees use the cars primarily to commute to work. And many of the work-related activities are administrative in nature rather than emergencies.

"The time getting back and forth to work, with the limited number of (work-related) incidents would not justify the vehicle, " said Robert Melton, the deputy director of the clerk's office's internal audit division.

Pinellas officials are not considering eliminating the program, though.

Pinellas County has significantly fewer take-home cars than surrounding counties, assistant county administrator Mark Woodard said. By comparison, Hillsborough County has 21 vehicles, Pinellas officials said, and Polk County has 92.

"It's not unusual for organizations to have take-home vehicles, " said Woodard. "Those 10 vehicles are assigned to individuals who are assigned to public safety."

The employees with the cars include Airport Director Noah Lagos and Communications Director Marcia Crawley. The late Gary Vickers, the county's emergency manager director, had one of the cars. He was not driving his county vehicle in February when he had a crash that led to his death.

Officials say the cars allow them to be more efficient. They can be called to work at any time and often make work-related stops on the way to and from work.

"I am on call 24 hours a day, nights, weekends, " said Crawley, whose duties include disseminating emergency information to the public. "I am expected to be available to this county at any point in time."

Auditors also said they found security lapses at the county's 23 fuel stations, including fuel pumps left unlocked or locks left with the combination numbers set ready to be opened.

An auditor drove into a station and put gas in his personal car, Melton said. The auditor left his telephone number on the log expecting to get a probing call from the county, but Melton said that never happened.

The audit recommends, among other things, an automated fuel delivery system and automated gates at the sites.

The audit also recommends digital surveillance cameras.

Some of those changes have been taking place the past year, Woodard said.

Several locations already have cameras, he said.

In a few months, the county hopes to install a computerized fueling system with a transmitter that will recognize only county vehicles.

"We have had very little theft over the years, " Woodard said. With "fuel now pushing $3.50 (a gallon), we recognize we need to take extraordinary measures to secure those sites."

$134, 300 Cost to maintain the 10 cars over a three-year period.

$23, 200 What it would cost to just reimburse the employees for work-related miles at 44.5 cents per mile.

$111, 100 What the county could save.