The take-home vehicle program isn’t a new concept to municipalities, but maintaining a good budget with clear policies is a never-ending job. Wilmington, N.C., is one of very few municipalities to have a commendable audit in 2016, which leads to the question, what are they doing right?
“The only issue I’ve seen with the program is the need to have a policy that is more black and white,” explained Communications Manager Malissa Talbert. “We have an audit program citywide to look at our resources and to make sure we are following city procedures effectively. There’s accountability on all levels. I think the main reason our audits have been good is because we do have those levels of accountability along with those policies and procedures in place. They’re clear as they can be. We have very good resources, so the staff does the best they can with what they have.
“Even if you have to go back and change it, you have to start with a policy in place. Make it as clear as possible. Make sure all the staff knows about it. Our officers really appreciate this program for many reasons. We’ve had to learn, but it’s been good.”
The Wilmington Fire Department has been taking home vehicles for decades but policies were revisited and rewritten in 2016, for all city employees. While the police department has over 200 vehicles, the fire department has 16 for primarily fire investigators and travelers.
“We think we’re more efficient and effective with personnel who are taking cars home,” commented Public Information Officer David Hines with the fire department. “They don’t need to come back if there’s an emergency, they can go directly to the scene with most of the necessary equipment in their take-home vehicle.”
Some day-to-day operations wouldn’t always require officials to report back to their office, and with some days ending closer towards home, that creates opportunities for better fuel conservation.
“A couple of our training officers had taken our vehicles,” explained Hines. “A lot of times, their days might start at the training grounds outside the county. Our inspectors may have an early morning inspection that could be right down the road from their house. It doesn’t make sense to drive all the way to the station to switch cars. We think the vehicles are maintained better when we say it’s their vehicle. The more you drive it, the more you know it and the better you can figure out if something’s wrong with it. I would say to trust your people. Tell them what your expectations are, give them guidelines and then trust them.”
While there are the possibilities of issues arising due to misuse, there are procedures in place to ensure proper admonition occurs. If an employee receives a speeding ticket while driving a city vehicle on or off the clock, they would have to pay the ticket themselves. Accident cases are also observed thoroughly and individually by a safety compliance officer, though Wilmington hasn’t had very many issues with irresponsibility.
Talbert said that the city has been more efficient and the program poses as a nice recruitment tool for officers even though certain qualifications are to be met before a vehicle can be taken home by someone.
While Wilmington experienced an initial cost at the beginning, the following years have off set the cost of the cars in the city’s airtight budget. Wilmington stretches every dollar as far as possible but has never considered the need to create a policy that requires a fee from city employees to take home a vehicle.
“I would definitely look at other municipalities who have this (program) and learn from them,” advised Talbert. “Learn about what they are doing right and what mistakes they’ve made. Our officers really appreciate this program for many reasons. We’ve had to learn some things, but it’s been good.”
Several municipalities who take part in the take-home vehicle program experience better crime prevention, longer lifespan in vehicles, a decrease in overtime, quicker response times with better preparedness and savings in tax dollars.
A comprehensive study by Tacoma, Wash., and its outside consulting firm, Mercury Associates, compared a fleet of 30 take-home assigned vehicles to a pool of 34 unassigned vehicles for eight years. During this study it was discovered that:
- On average, shared vehicles lasted only 20-26 months while assigned vehicles lasted 60 months.
- The study found massive reductions in accident and damage repair costs. Shared vehicles would reach up to $8,400 a year while assigned vehicles went up to $1,375.
- There is not only an increase for backup potential within police departments but a higher morale amongst employees.
Why the city may not be seeing benefits
Municipalities that have imposed a fee for the take-home vehicle program appear to have done so in reaction to employees misusing vehicles for personal errands. While a few errands are excusable in unforeseen circumstances, overuse stresses the budget.
Indianapolis and Evansville, Ind., found an excessive amount of officers using city vehicles for personal use, which would drive up the wear on the vehicle as well as the fuel cost that has already been worked into the city’s budget. In examining the rising costs, both cities found the need for policy changes.
The policy implemented required different fees for in-county and outer-county officers who still wished to have a take-home car yet also be able to use it for personal use. The fees ranged from $65 to $146 a month in Indianapolis with a small amount of officers waived. A 2012, article reported that in Evansville in-county officers are charged $260 per year and outer-county officers were charged $494.
Misuse of city vehicles can occur when there is a lack of strong monitoring on employees. With vigilance, attention to detail, clear policies and sharp accountability on all levels, a city could face better outcomes with its take-home vehicle program.