A government investigator warned Montgomery County officials that the county’s rules on take-home cars were vague and that its oversight was weak.
“The perception that some county employees might be getting a ‘free ride’ could damage citizen trust in county government,” wrote Montgomery’s inspector general.
That was in 2001.
On Tuesday, officials signaled a crackdown could be coming after new revelations of abuses. Members of the County Council said they plan to approve new limits on the use of take-home cars, particularly by top county managers and a number of employees who have failed to explain why they need such vehicles.
Officials in County Executive Isiah Leggett’s administration, facing council questions in recent weeks, acknowledged that lax control of the fleet has led to cars being used for personal benefit rather than official business. Administration officials said that their monitoring in some cases had been stymied because some county employees ignored requests for information to justify their hold on the cars.
But when officials repeated that explanation under questioning at a transportation committee hearing Tuesday, council members said they planned to insert themselves in the process to get something done.
“There should be a very strong presumption that very few people need to take vehicles home,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large), a freshman who has led the council’s push for new limits on take-home car usage. “Anybody else that hasn’t justified their vehicle, we should pull that vehicle back.”
Added council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large): “If people haven’t been able to get their act together by now, they’re done. Period. No more paper.”
Council member Roger Berliner (D-Bethesda) said his “operating assumption” is that the transportation committee will call for directors of county departments to give up the cars they’ve been assigned. “No director should be entitled to take home a vehicle,” Berliner said.
Administration officials appealed for, and received, extra time to outline the impact of the proposed changes. They also emphasized that take-home arrangements can save taxpayer money in some instances by letting employees such as inspectors get to their assignments more quickly at the beginning of the workday. Berliner set a deadline for next week.
“You really have the burden of proof from my perspective,” Berliner said.
David Dise, director of the county’s Department of General Services, which oversees fleet management, said Leggett (D) “is committed to investigating this and reporting back in time for the council to make its decisions.”
But Dise said, “There are some managers who, in fact, do have a legitimate use for a dedicated vehicle,” such as those with 24-hour-a-day responsibility for overseeing county operations, including managing the fleet itself.
A county finance official said more than half of employees with take-home cars account for the cost of their commute. But officials said most of those workers follow rules putting a $3-per-day price tag on their daily drive to and from the office.
County officials offered revised statistics on their take-home fleet Tuesday, saying the numbers Dise provided to Riemer earlier this month gave a wrong impression. The permanent fleet, excluding fire-and-rescue and police patrol vehicles, has remained largely flat in recent years, Dise said: There were 208 such cars in 2006 and 216 in 2011.
One of the take-home vehicles is a dump truck from the Department of Environmental Protection, according to county documents. Dise said he is looking into that case.
Millie Souders, the head of fleet management, said council member Marilyn Praisner had long taken a keen interest in the issue of take-home cars before her death in 2008. “I guess other people didn’t have the same interest,” Souders said.
But, Floreen responded, “We’re all interested in it. We just thought you were managing it more completely.”
What has been missing for years among some of the drivers of county cars, Floreen said, is “some kind of element of personal responsibility here or assessment of the cost to the government.”