Imagine getting up in the morning, getting dressed, hopping in a vehicle paid for by your employer, and driving to work. Your job could be 10, 20, even 30 or more miles away – but that doesn’t matter because the miles, and wear and tear, aren’t being put on your personal vehicle. That is the reality for nearly 1,200 public employees of the City of Houston.
The city’s Fleet Management Department operates a home storage vehicle program that allows approved employees to take a city-owned vehicle to and from work. The policy says the program is for employees who report to work sites throughout the city, are placed “on call,” or perform special repair or emergency services after normal work hours.
So, what does this cost taxpayers?
Unless they are exempt, employees reimburse the city at a rate of $98 per pay period, a little under $2,500 a year. If the city required all employees to reimburse for their home storage vehicle, about $2.5 million annually would be paid back to the city, but currently the city only receives $1.6 million.
The requirements for the program state, “Employees reimburse the City for non-City business driving (commute miles),” unless exempt, but there are currently 402 home storage exemptions. Roughly 35 percent of vehicles in the program do not require reimbursements for their use.
To be generous with estimates referenced, if an employee was driving an average size sedan the maximum number of non-exempt miles (30 miles) just four days a week, they would accumulate a total of 12,480 commuting miles a year.
According to the American Automobile Association (AAA) pegged the average cost of maintenance, depreciation, and tires on a vehicle being driven 7,500 miles a year, using AAA numbers, is about $2,500 annually. That’s not including insurance, registration, taxes, and financing, which for the city-owned vehicles are tax funded.
The standard policy only permits employees who live within a 30-mile radius of City Hall to be approved for home storage vehicles, and most of the vehicles are stored between 20 and 30 miles from City Hall. Over 500 of them are outside of the 20-mile range but still within 30 miles.
However, 67 exemptions were granted for employees living more than 30 miles from City Hall. The exemptions, according to city policy, are reserved for employees whose “job functions are critical to department operations.” Out of those 67 radius exemptions, 24 of them also receive reimbursement exemptions. So 24 city vehicles commute 30+ miles to and from work on the taxpayers’ dime.
At the time of the report on the home storage program was released, some of the 67 exempted vehicles were as close as Lake Jackson and Huntsville, roughly 55 and 70 miles from city hall respectively, while others were authorized all the way out to Burleson, Texas, 253 miles from city hall. How one can respond to an emergency situation while 253 miles away remains an unanswered question.
The large majority of the 1,117 take home vehicles are within the police department, with Houston Fire a distant second, and Public Works and Engineering rounding out third. Other departments included are general services, parks and recreation, and even human resources, just to name a few.
The city’s policy prohibits the employees from using the vehicles for personal use like errands, trips, dropping the kids off at soccer practice, etc., but how is that monitored and enforced?
Seemingly through the honor system.
Home-storage vehicle beneficiaries are required to compile reports, which each respective department submits to fleet management on a quarterly basis. The reports contain odometer readings from the start and end of the quarter, total vehicle miles for the quarter, city business miles for the quarter, and total days the vehicle was used.
Aside from the employee reports, there are no reliable and objective checks and balance to ensure employees aren’t using city vehicles for non-work purposes. According to the head of the home-storage program, all of the vehicles aren’t even equipped with GPS tracking.
With employees only reimbursing $98 per pay period, for those not exempt, taxpayers are bearing much of the burden for them to commute to and from work. The argument can be made for employees who regularly respond to emergencies across the sprawling city, the same can’t be said for all 1,200, and counting, vehicles.
It’s a nice private-sector perk to have a work vehicle available at your leisure, but when taxpayers are footing the bill for employee convenience, questions need to be asked and answered. Should public employees be allowed to take taxpayer-funded vehicles to homes outside of the city? If so, should exemptions for reimbursements and radius be more limited? Also, why is there not more oversight when it comes to non-commuting travel in work vehicles?
As the city explores additional ways to cut costs and free up revenue, the home storage vehicle program should come under close review.