Board Addresses Vehicle Mileage, Allows Most Tall Houses to Remain

Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly said running up unnecessary miles on county vehicles just to keep them from being taken away
Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly said running up unnecessary miles on county vehicles just to keep them from being taken away "is wrong." (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Fairfax County supervisors yesterday demanded that employees be disciplined if they are caught running up mileage on their government cars to avoid losing them.

"This isn't a cat-and-mouse thing," Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said, a day after a Washington Post report detailed how employees from fire investigators to caseworkers, faced with the prospect of losing cars that have relatively few miles accrued, set out to drive them more.

"The fact that I just want my vehicle and I don't want it taken away. . . . Artificially putting miles on a vehicle you know wouldn't be justified or using it for purposes that are not legitimate business purposes is wrong," the chairman said.

The board also made 5,000 miles the minimum an employee assigned a car must drive annually to keep it, raising the total from 4,500 miles and acknowledging that the number is below the state government average of 7,000 to 10,000 miles. County Executive Anthony H. Griffin said he is reviewing the new minimum -- and the policy to cut bloat in the county motor pool -- to make sure it's not arbitrary. "Maybe it should be a higher number," he said.

Also yesterday, the board took action to move dozens of homeowners out of the legal limbo that they have been in since the county determined in the summer that their new houses exceeded Fairfax's height limit. If a house is taller than the code allows, the house can stand as is, as long as the roof went on before July 1, supervisors decided.

It was unclear how Griffin will determine which county employees have gotten creative in adding miles to their odometers, and exactly how they did it. Hundreds of e-mails and memos obtained by The Post under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act revealed a host of strategies, including swapping cars with co-workers who drive more and filling up gas on the last day of the fiscal year to register miles driven on the last tank.

The effort to weed unnecessary cars from the motor pool of 3,500 sedans, trucks and heavy-equipment vehicles began in 2004. The county auditor began investigating after noticing an unusual number of cars parked in the garage of the Herrity Building. He concluded that the fleet was bloated and that Fairfax could save more than $1 million a year by trimming it.

The county's 11,500 employees and supervisors were told that cars accruing fewer than 4,500 miles a year would be confiscated, with exceptions made for police, fire and some other officials. A total of 160 cars have been squeezed out over three years, from a pool of about 900 considered eligible.

"I've seen a lot of cars in the Herrity Building and keep wondering if all of those are needed," Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence) said yesterday.

Griffin said he is concerned that if the fleet keeps growing, the cars will have nowhere to park and be serviced. He also noted that an attempt at efficiency may have resulted in lower mileage on some cars: Some workers are driving less because they are asked to go directly to assignments from home, rather than stopping first at the Government Center.

"By trying to be efficient, we're now identifying potential inefficiencies," Griffin said, referring to the race to reach the minimum. "We may have created a trap for employees."

On the tall houses issue, the board succumbed yesterday to weeks of pressure from builders, who complained that their clients were treated unfairly.

"There were legitimate misunderstandings" between builders and county staff on how to measure a roofline, Supervisor Sharon S. Bulova (D-Braddock) said.

The board discovered this summer that houses across Fairfax were built higher than 35 feet -- some by as much as 10 feet. A complaint from an Oakton resident over a neighbor's house he thought too tall led to the investigation. The problem arose because builders were averaging the heights of multiple roof levels on a house to arrive at a height, whereas the county's zoning ordinance says to measure at the midpoint of a roof.

Anyone who had already moved in was unaffected by the change, even if a house was higher than the code allowed. But about 45 buyers who were waiting for permits to move in were blocked, as were others whose houses were in various stages of design and completion and who were told to make fixes.

The board directed the county's zoning administrator to issue a letter to the industry this week to explain the change.

"The methodology was not as clear as it should have been," Connolly said. "The objective of the board is not to punish innocent home buyers."

Among them were Anh and Phong Mai, who were denied an occupancy permit for their new Oakton house because it measures 39 feet tall. Because it was well beyond the design stage, they would have had to rip off the roof or fill in dirt around the foundation, covering their basement.

"We are so relieved to get this issue behind us," said the couple's builder, Deborah Brehony, who led the fight to overturn the board's ruling. "These were honest citizens, architects and builders who were doing what they thought was the right thing."

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