Fairfax Employees Run Up Odometers To Keep Their Cars

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Lt. George Robbins got the urgent e-mail in late July. The office that keeps track of cars for the Fairfax County Fire Department wanted to know why the mileage was low on an investigator's GMC Safari van. Couldn't the guy drive it more?

Robbins came up with this solution: Have the investigator, who lives near department headquarters, swap county-issued cars with a co-worker who drives about 35 miles round trip from Prince William County.

From homeless-outreach workers to zoning inspectors, Fairfax employees are driving hundreds of vehicles across the county -- or are swapping cars with those who drive more -- simply to run up the odometers. They know that if they don't use their cars, they could lose them.

Of all the perks of public service, few are more treasured than the government car. So when the county established 4,500 miles as the annual minimum to determine whether a vehicle could be weeded from its fleet to save money, many employees and managers got creative. Their efforts -- heightened even as gasoline prices soared this year -- are documented in hundreds of

e-mails and memos obtained by The Washington Post under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

The e-mails show that, in the bureaucracy that serves Fairfax's 1.1 million residents, a change in policy can have unintended results.

Apparently ignored in the effort to keep cars were potential issues of wasted time and gasoline, and wear and tear on the vehicles. And the elaborate strategies devised by employees to hold on to their vehicles often escape the notice of the county, which does not track where a car goes or why.

The county auditor first noticed in 2004 that a large number of official vehicles were parked for long stretches in a garage at county headquarters. The county maintained 3,500 sedans, trucks and heavy-equipment vehicles, or about one vehicle for every three employees.

Today, the average sedan costs taxpayers about $20,000 and lasts about six years. Add in $1,200 in annual maintenance. And gas: 9 million gallons a year for trips countywide.

After an audit, the County Board of Supervisors saw a way to save millions of dollars.

Told about the e-mails last week, Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said he was not pleased: "For this to work, we need to stay flexible, but those who play games must be disciplined." He was out of town last week but released that statement through his staff.

Employees were told to refer any query from The Post about the issue to the Office of Public Affairs and would not comment.

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