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Published: Monday, 10/20/2003

Lucas County to shrink its fleet of cars

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Lucas County hasn't unveiled its revamped car policy yet, but the commissioners are making one promise: The 433-vehicle fleet will shrink.

Gaining control over who's driving those vehicles - particularly the 105 commuter cars in that fleet - became a priority for the commissioners after Treasurer Ray Kest's arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol in a county car.

In the days following Mr. Kest's arrest in August, it became obvious that state law barring the personal use of county vehicles was being ignored and there was little oversight of car use.

The policy, which may be presented to commissioners this week, will be designed to address those problems.

“I think what we need to see is control,” Commissioner Harry Barlos said. “What we need to have in place is a system to determine who's driving, what the parameters of the use are, weekly or bimonthly usage reports, and accurate gas use. We need total accountability.”

The county may consider the state's approach to decreasing the size of its vehicle fleet. The state crafted a formula that dictates a mileage level where it makes more sense to reimburse an employee for their miles driven.

For example, it was determined that for a 1998-2003 compact car driven less than 9,118 miles, it generally makes more sense to reimburse for mileage, according to Ben Piscitelli, a spokesman for the Department of Administrative Services.

The Ohio Department of Administrative Services formulated the plan after Gov. Bob Taft ordered a reduction of the state's 12,565 vehicle fleet.

“We're trying to control costs and look at the most effective use of the state vehicles,” he said. “It's the same decision we all have to make - do I want to spend money making repairs or is it cheaper to buy a new car.”

The state vehicle fleet was 13,995 when Mr. Taft took office in 1999. Orest Holubec, a spokesman for the governor, said the state's budget problems require cuts wherever they can be made.

“One of the ways we can save costs is through fleet management,” Mr. Holubec said.

Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak said she likes the idea of the state plan and thinks the county should investigate the possibility of instituting something similar.

“I think it has relevance because of the budget woes, but also because of the misuse,” said Ms. Wozniak, who doesn't have a county car. “I think we've learned a lot. I'm grateful that we're getting a handle on it. Past misuse issues haven't been fair to the taxpayers.”

Mr. Barlos was one of the people caught up in the county car fallout. He admitted that he was using his county-owned minivan as a personal vehicle, which is a violation of state law. He said he was unaware of the law because each year he was required to fill out a form that listed his personal use of the car. That form, however, was only for tax purposes and had nothing to do with Ohio law.

He has since obtained another car and plans to return the minivan to the county at the end of the month. He said it will be easier to be reimbursed for mileage for work driving than it would be to juggle vehicles.

Other elected officials also turned in their vehicles in the wake of media scrutiny. Recorder Sue Rioux and Prosecutor Julia Bates have returned their cars, and Clerk of Courts Bernie Quilter parked his county minivan in the county garage for use by his staff.

When trying to get a handle on county car usage, county officials initially said 66 cars were being used for commuting purposes. After more investigation, that figure grew to about 100, according to County Administrator Edward Ciecka.

He said before the end of the year, the county will review the use of each commuter car. If the mileage and use of the car isn't deemed justified, the car will be taken away. In some cases, he said, it will make more sense to reimburse people 36 cents a mile to drive their own vehicles.

In other cases, people such as building inspectors need to have commuter cars so they can go directly from home to work sites without stopping downtown to pick up a vehicle.

“Where the policy seems to be going is that we will review car assignments yearly,” Mr. Ciecka said. “We did this in light of our budget, but once someone had a car, we never really went back and looked at the decision.”

Lucas County's lagging sales tax collections and declining investment income is spurring a budget cut from $137 million this year to $127 million in 2004.

How much money can be saved by trimming the county-vehicle fleet remains to be seen, Mr. Ciecka said. John Zeitler, the county's budget director, estimates that the county spends about $3.7 million annually on its vehicle fleet. That accounts for the cost of the vehicles, insurance, gasoline, and maintenance.

Commissioner Maggie Thurber, who like Ms. Wozniak doesn't have a county car, said another option is to use rental cars rather than owning cars. She said using a rental car as needed might make more sense than keeping a large fleet of cars on hand.

“Why should we pay a whole bunch of money in mileage for someone to drive to Columbus and back?” she said. “We'd pay more for mileage than we would to rent a car.”



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