Fairfax to Review Use of County Vehicles

Investigation Stems From Questions About Workers' Take-Home Cars

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 3, 2009; Page B01

Fairfax County officials will review their practice of allowing certain employees to take home county-owned vehicles after questions arose this week about whether some were abusing the policy.

Board Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) on Wednesday called for an audit of the program, whose primary purpose is to allow police officers, firefighters, maintenance workers and others to respond to emergencies from home. About 540 county-owned vehicles are routinely taken home by employees, according to county and police figures.

Last summer, a Washington Post investigation found that many police officers live far outside the county, with their gas, insurance and maintenance costs covered by county taxpayers. This week, a report by WTTG (Channel 5) alleged that some firefighters were using their county-issued cars to commute long distances and might be filing erroneous travel logs.

Bulova said yesterday that she has asked for "an investigation into whether there is abuse of the existing policy or if the policy should be tightened up."

It is unclear, however, whether the Board of Supervisors' audit committee will be able to provide information to the board before it is scheduled to adopt a budget for next year. As part of their effort to account for a $650 million budget gap, county officials are considering cutting nearly 200 fire and police jobs.

Calls to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department yesterday were not returned.

John Niemiec, president of the Fairfax County firefighters and paramedics union, defended the practice of allowing members to take county cars home because it helps them respond to emergencies more quickly. Daniel Gray, safety battalion chief for the department and a union member, wrote in a fax to The Post that he is on duty virtually 24 hours a day and uses his county-issued vehicle to respond when he is needed.

Still, Niemiec said he would support adjusting the department's policies if it helps save 89 fire department jobs that could be eliminated through budget cuts.

"We don't want anyone to lose jobs, and if our members have to lose their take-home vehicles in an effort to save the 89 positions, that's what the union is going to back," he said.

Last summer, the police department, which has about 400 take-home vehicles, enacted strict rules requiring that anyone receiving a car live within 30 miles of the county; those already living beyond the 30-mile radius were exempted.

The fire department has no such limit. Although the department has reported that it has 33 take-home vehicles, the television report alleged that there were more and that some employees were driving as far as Spotsylvania County and Gambrills.

The last time the county audited its take-home vehicle practices was in 2004, Bulova said. That resulted in a reduction of the county fleet and a savings of $2.5 million.

Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.

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