City Commissioner Mike Rundle believes the city is paying upward of $100,000 per year for a select group of city employees to drive from their homes to work.
At Tuesday night's city commission meeting, Rundle said he believed city department heads were being too lenient in letting city employees take home city-owned vehicles. When the vehicles are driven home by employees, the city pays for all the gasoline costs associated with the employees driving to and from their homes.
"It seems to be more of an unofficial benefit or perk system instead of giving people who actually need a vehicle to do their jobs," Rundle said.
The city has 61 vehicles that are taken home by employees on a regular basis. With gasoline prices recently having topped out near $3 per gallon, Rundle said the number of take-home vehicles should be a red flag to city managers.
Rundle said when gasoline prices began to spike he began requesting information about how many take-home vehicles the city had. Rundle said using fuel mileage estimates from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, he estimated that one round trip per day between the homes and workplaces of each of the 61 employees was costing the city $99,000 per year.
"If you look at our current policy on this, it is somewhat weak," Rundle said. "There is nothing concrete in there."
The current policy mainly discusses issues related to employees having proper driver's licenses, wearing seat belts, that the vehicles are used for city business only and that employees take the most direct route between their homes and work. The only guidance the policy gives on who should be allowed to take home a vehicle is that department heads must determine it is in the "best interest of the city."
City Manager Mike Wildgen said the policy probably does need reviewed, and that there likely was the ability to reduce the number of take-home vehicles. Wildgen said Rundle's concern that the system was becoming an unofficial perk needed to be investigated.
"I think that is a valid question," Wildgen said. "We want to make sure that is not happening."
Wildgen said the general rule he gave to department heads was to consider whether the employee was in the type of position where he or she would need to respond quickly to provide a city service during nonworking hours.
He said utility workers, for example, sometimes took home trucks with special tools that would allow them to turn off meters or fix water leaks in the middle of the night. Wildgen also said some department heads also had take home cars because they were expected to attend public meetings in the evening or routinely make other trips during nondaytime hours. A list of the 61 positions that have take home cars wasn't available at Tuesday's meeting. Wildgen said fewer department heads, including himself, had the cars because they did have the potential to create questions among the public.
"They'll see your city car in front of a store, and you may be there for city business, but sometimes people think the worst," Wildgen said.
Employees who do drive their personal vehicles for city business are reimbursed.
Commissioners unanimously agreed for Wildgen to prepare a report on the issue, but some expressed concern that if commissioners get more involved in the process it could be unhealthy micromanagement.
"I see this as one of those below the iceberg issues," City Commissioner Sue Hack said. "I see this as a policy that we hire managers to create and implement."
Rundle said he thought it was high time for commissioners to become more involved.
"I see it as several tens of thousands of dollars that we could be using every time we struggle with whether to add a new crossing guard or some other needed city employee," Rundle said.
Rundle said a 2000 audit by Kansas City, Mo., found that nearly 75 percent of that city's take-home vehicles were used less than once per month for emergency responses outside normal working hours. The audit also found the city could save about 95 percent of its costs by simply reimbursing employees for use of their personal vehicles rather than providing them a vehicle.