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Published: Friday, 8/22/2003

Personal use of county's cars may lead to probe

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

John Alexander, the county's chief of staff, could set that scenario in motion today. He said yesterday he plans to prepare a memo asking the county prosecutor's office to investigate the issue.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates later told The Blade that because she represents the county's elected officials, she could not investigate them for possible misuse of county vehicles.

However, she said she could request that a special prosecutor from another county be appointed to carry out such a probe if necessary.

The county commissioners have been grappling with the issue since county Treasurer Ray Kest was arrested early Sunday morning on a charge of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Mr. Kest, who was driving a county car when stopped along I-475 in Springfield Township, failed a field sobriety test and refused to take an alcohol breath test.

If Mr. Kest was on personal business when he was driving the car at 12:15 a.m. Sunday with an unidentified woman passenger, he is not alone, a review by The Blade has found.

Harry Barlos, president of the board of commissioners, and Recorder Sue Rioux told The Blade that they have driven county cars for personal use.

Mr. Kest did not return calls seeking comment yesterday. Mr. Barlos and Ms. Rioux said they thought personal use was allowed as long as they reported nonwork-related driving to the county and paid taxes for the use of the cars.

State law, however, says that county cars cannot be used “except in the transaction of public business or work of the county.” The commissioners are responsible by law for regulating the use of county vehicles.

Mr. Barlos acknowledged that he uses his county-owned minivan as a personal vehicle to pick up his kids at school, to make trips to the grocery store, and to visit his mother.

“If the final analysis is commuting only [is allowed] ... you're going to have to have the commuter police - or get rid of county cars,” he said.

Mr. Alexander said the number of miles claimed by Mr. Kest as work-related driving “seems unusually high on a yearly basis.”

Mr. Kest, who is pursuing a PhD at Cleveland State University, reported that he drove a 2000 Pontiac Bonneville owned by the county 30,000 miles from Nov. 1, 2001, to Oct. 31, 2002, county records show. His affidavit states that he drove 25,000 miles on county-related business. In his job as treasurer, he oversees such things as collecting property taxes and investing county funds.

Since July 10, he's driven about 3,200 miles in a county-owned 2003 Bonneville, according to county records. The car was turned into the county vehicle maintenance department this week after Mr. Kest's arrest on the DUI charge.

County Auditor Larry Kaczala reported the second-highest number. He said he drove 18,262 miles on county business and 21,370 miles overall. “My test that I've always used is, `Am I going because I'm Larry Kaczala, or because I'm the Lucas County auditor,'” he said. “If I'm going because I'm me, I drive my personal car.”

Mrs. Bates, who said she follows county policy for using her county-issued Jeep Cherokee, reported that she drove 13,012 miles, 9,412 of which were work-related.

Mr. Barlos drove 7,521 miles on work-related business from Nov. 1, 2001, to Oct. 31, 2002 - the last period for which those records are available. He drove 10,034 personal miles, which includes the commuting use to his Maumee home that is allowed by county policy.

He said he anticipates the county policy will change substantially as a result of the increased attention Mr. Kest's arrest has brought to the issue.

The county has a total of 66 vehicles that are assigned to various elected officials and other employees that can be used to commute to and from work. The idea is that officials and some employees are often on county business at odd hours and need to have vehicles at their disposal.

The form filled out by elected officials requires the listing of “personal miles.” Nonelected officials are not required to differentiate between their work-related and personal miles.

Mr. Barlos and Ms. Rioux said they read “personal miles” literally and thought that meant they could drive the cars for personal use. County Administrator Edward Ciecka said personal use only means commuting use.

Commissioners Tina Skeldon Wozniak and Maggie Thurber - neither of whom drives a county vehicle - called this week for a review of the county's car usage policy.

“I don't know how that started or how other people thought that was appropriate,” Ms. Thurber said.

Mr. Ciecka said the review committee he is organizing will determine such things as how the county vehicles are being used and whether the county is paying more to lease, fuel, maintain, and insure them than it would to reimburse drivers for work-related trips taken in their own cars.

For Ms. Rioux, for example, it cost the county more than $6,000 to pay for her lease, insurance, gas, and maintenance of her car last year. Had she charged the county for the 6,133 miles she drove, it would have cost about $2,200 based on the federal mileage reimbursement rate set by the Internal Revenue Service.

Even for Mr. Kaczala, who used his car often for work, it would have been cheaper for the county to reimburse him the $6,574 for the 18,262 miles he drove. Without including gas, it cost the county $6,856 for the lease, insurance, and maintenance of his 2002 Bonneville last year.

One county employee, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said county officials long have viewed driving county cars as a perk.

“I think there was a presumption that this was compensation,” the employee said. “When the legislature wasn't granting pay raises, having a car was seen as compensation.”

Blade Staff Writer Mark Reiter contributed to this report.



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