County reconsiders use of free cars

Board of supervisors to look at policy to tighten vehicle use
By: Gus Thomson Journal Staff Writer
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Placer County supervisors who have enjoyed free SUVs and cars at taxpayers’ expense may decide today to curb that practice in the future. Supervisors Jim Holmes, Robert Weygandt, Rocky Rockholm and Kirk Uhler all take county-supplied vehicles home at night. That means their own vehicle use is wrapped into larger budget questions surrounding a spike in the use of county vehicles and ways to cut back as county revenues implode. The agenda of today’s Board of Supervisors meeting includes a series of recommendations from staff that could affect them personally – and in the pocketbook. They include putting in force policies curbing SUV use, establishing mileage minimums and requiring county take-home vehicles to be clearly marked. The recommendations from the county CEO’s office are intended to lop off almost $500,000 from the estimated $6 million the county now spends on its fleet of regular-sized cars, SUVs and trucks. The number of vehicles increased from 739 in 2004 to 841 last year. At the same time, the fleet of take-home autos rose from 125 to 153. Records of the take-home vehicles supplied by the county to supervisors show Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery the lone elected official on the board not using a county-owned auto. Former Supervisor Bruce Kranz drove a Toyota 4Runner before leaving office and his Tahoe City administrative aide drove a Subaru Wagon 4-by-4. She drives her own car. The cost to the county for supervisor vehicles varies, ranging from Granite Bay Supervisor Kirk Uhler’s used $21,600 2003 Acura Type S TL to Roseville Supervisor Rocky Rockholm’s 2007 Chevy Tahoe, which he said cost $43,456. A spreadsheet of county take-home vehicles shows cost ranging from $19,000 for Chrysler Sebrings driven by several sheriff’s deputies to just more than $29,000 for Ford Expeditions driven by canine unit dog handlers. The county list shows Supervisor Robert Weygandt, who represents the Lincoln area, drives a county-owned Jeep Grand Cherokee costing $27,000. Supervisor Jim Holmes, who represents the Auburn-Newcastle area, drives a Jeep Cherokee county records state cost $25,000. Rockholm said the Tahoe currently has 20,599 miles on it and he considers it marked because it has government license plates. Rockholm said he doesn’t drive the Tahoe SUV for personal use and feels the county expenditure is justified. “I use the Tahoe to attend board meetings, committee meetings, MAC meetings and many other government-related meetings on behalf of the county,” Rockholm said. He added that he also uses the Tahoe for everything from attending Eagle Scout court of honor celebrations to park and business openings. Rockholm, who has been on the board since January 2007, said he plans to continue to use the SUV as long as he serves as supervisor. “This vehicle will last me for at least eight years,” Rockholm said in an e-mail message. Wally Reemelin, president of the Taxpayers League of Placer County, said Monday that supervisor vehicle use is indicative of a misguided mind set. “They’re given the use of a car and they bump it up to something bigger than that,” Reemelin said. “Taking a 40-grand SUV gets to be something a bit much.” Reemelin said he could see Montgomery having a take-home vehicle because of the driving she does from Tahoe. But the others should make use of the county pool of cars located in the North Auburn maintenance yard, he said. Otherwise, they can use their own cars and claim for the mileage, he added. “It shows that if you give them an inch, they’ll take a hundred miles,” Reemelin said. Uhler said that when he first returned to the board in December 2006, he was informed that the preferred policy had changed from board members being reimbursed for their mileage on personal vehicles to supervisors driving county-owned and maintained vehicles. “Rather than purchasing a new vehicle, I went to CarMax and bought mine used,” Uhler said. With tax, license and other costs associated with the sale, the cost to the county was closer to $23,000, he said. Supervisor Robert Weygandt said he drove his own vehicle until six years ago, and then was provided with the Jeep he now drives from the county auto pool. He switched to the county vehicle when he stopped working full-time for his company, he said. There are no markings on the vehicle because none were put on when he got the Jeep, he said. He uses his own car for personal business and the county vehicle when he’s on county business, he said. As is the case with other supervisors, the county pays for vehicle registration, gas and maintenance as well as the cost of Weygandt’s auto. Weygandt said that when he was asked about obtaining a county vehicle he said he wanted one with four-wheel-drive to get up to the mountains. Like other supervisors, Weygandt’s compensation for his job as supervisor is tied to a 1992 measure passed by voters, which limits compensation to $30,000 a year. Weygandt has served on the board for 14 years at that $30,000 rate. The alternative for supervisors would be to use their own vehicles and get reimbursed for mileage, he said. But with such low compensation to begin with, and vehicles available to other county employees who make a normal wage, it helps board members financially to not have to operate their own vehicle for county business, he said. Weygandt said he uses his own car when not representing the county. “$30,000 without benefits is not a living wage,” Weygandt said. “The cost to taxpayers is inexpensive and I think destructive. The question taxpayers have to ask is, ‘How much are they willing to pay for the best and brightest?’ There’s not much more you can squeeze out of the office regarding compensation.” Supervisor Jim Holmes, who works part-time with the county Office of Education, said he drives a 2004 Jeep Cherokee and feels take-home vehicles for supervisors are necessary because of the many meetings outside of normal working hours that he attends. Meetings or duties in the early morning or late evening wouldn’t allow him to get into the county maintenance yard to pick up a fleet vehicle, he said. Holmes described duties that take him to Sacramento and other Northern California communities. “As chairman of the Capital Corridor Joint Powers Authority, I have occasion to travel to Suisun City and Oakland for meetings,” Holmes said. “Last year, as chairman of the board, I traveled to the Tahoe area quite often for meetings.” Holmes said he does carpool when the occasion requires it. “I always try to ride with staff or another supervisor to meetings when it makes sense,” Holmes said. “I have done it several times while attending meetings in the Tahoe area.” Holmes, a former owner of an auto repair business, said the type of vehicle he has is relatively immaterial to him. “I don’t mind driving an old clunker if that’s what they want me to,” Holmes said. Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery is the lone board member driving her own vehicle. She logs her mileage on county business and is compensated for that. “I love my car and it gets really good gas mileage,” Montgomery said. The Journal’s Gus Thomson can be reached at -------- Placer County Board of Supervisors When: 9 a.m. today Where: County Administrative Center, 175 Fulweiler Ave., Auburn -------- Changes on the table for Placer County vehicle use Placer County supervisors will consider new policy recommendations today designed to curb unnecessary take-home vehicle use and save the county nearly $500,000 on annual costs now approaching $6 million for fleet-related expenditures. The recommendations from Placer County CEO Tom Miller are: -- Establish a minimum threshold requirement of 6,000 to 8,000 annual miles before a vehicle is assigned to an employee. -- Restrict take-home vehicles to employees with primary residences inside Placer County. Exceptions would be granted to employees living east of the Donner Summit, assigned to special programs including the coroner and canine units, or “other exceptions approved by the county executive officer.” -- Limit future Sport Utility Vehicle purchases to specific off-road and snow-country applications. -- Increase the number of fuel-efficient vehicles acquired as replacement vehicles. -- Require each county vehicle to display prominent decals on the body of the vehicle to clearly identify it as a county vehicle. Lease vehicles would be exempted. Also exempt would be vehicles used in undercover activities or exceptions “approved by the county executive office.” – Gus Thomson