Thanks to the unfavorable publicity generated lately by Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest, who will get no thanks from his fellow public officials, the use of public vehicles for private use is getting the kind of scrutiny it should have had years ago.
The city of Toledo, in response to inquiries by The Blade, has moved to limit the number of city employees who have take-home privileges for city-owned vehicles to 48, including 11 vehicles that are to be assigned to supervisors during the snow season.
That's a start, but it should not be considered the last word on the subject. The city can do better than that.
Private use of public vehicles is already under scrutiny at the county level, as well it should be, following Mr. Kest's arrest on a drunken driving charge. At last report 66 county officials were driving county vehicles, and the use of them varies widely. Mr. Kest, who commuted regularly in a county car to Cleveland to take and teach college classes, racked up 30,000 “official” miles in the year ending Oct. 31, 2002.
This is a sloppy way to do business. Taxpayers are being asked to pay for the transportation needs of public officials without adequate oversight as to how these government owned or leased vehicles are used. There is no clear pattern to their usage, which depends on how conscientious the public official is about keeping records and interpreting what official usage is. The old-boy network has been looking the other way at abuses for a long time.
The city and the county, both of which are crying poor, have turned a blind eye for years to a policy of subsidizing public officials' transportation habits. Some officeholders boldly defended the use of official vehicles as their only means of automotive transportation.
Obviously, some officials, those responsible for public safety, snow clearance, or certain public utility or inspection functions, should have the use of government-owned vehicles, which should be clearly labeled as to ownership. Otherwise, official cars should be allotted only to a few high-ranking officials such as the mayor, if he chooses.
All tax-supported agencies in the county should consider the merits of switching to a policy of reimbursing officials for miles driven in the line of duty. This is increasingly being done by public as well as privately run entities. Then, except for essential fleet vehicles, public agencies would not need to pay leasing and upkeep costs. And employees should be required to document their use of public vehicles.
The wrongful use of government vehicles for private purposes goes back to the old days, long past, when public salaries were lower, and the use of governmentally owned or leased vehicles was defended as a necessary perk.
Times are tough in Perk City these days, and all governmental units ought to respond by ending this far too easily abused gravy train for freeloaders on the public payroll.