ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s a coveted privilege for many county employees, and what many would call a job perk that can save money on a paycheck.
Since 1992, Bernalillo County has allowed employees to have “take-home vehicles” if they meet certain requirements. But as KRQE News 13 has learned through public records, for years, dozens of county workers were getting the coveted perk when they likely didn’t need it.
Now, the county is in the process of cracking down on take-home cars, and reclaiming the vehicles in an effort to save some much needed cash.
In all, Bernalillo County has a fleet of around 1,395 county owned vehicles. The lion’s share of those vehicles, 620 cars and trucks are assigned to the county’s “general fleet,” which is accessible to most county departments. About 147 pieces of “heavy equipment;” 124 cars and trucks assigned to the fire department; and 504 vehicles in the Sheriff’s Department round out the fleet.
In the last fiscal year (July 2015-2016,) Bernalillo County spent about $5.7 million on vehicle purchases, maintenance and fuel. That translates to about 30% of the $19.7 million dollar annual budget for the county’s Fleet and Maintenance Department.
Out of the nearly 1,400 vehicles under the county’s ownership, the county tells KRQE News 13 that it had as many as 85 take-home vehicles in early 2016. Most of those vehicles belong to county administrators and support staff. Vehicles assigned to deputies associated with general patrol services in the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department are not included in the 85 take-home cars.
While the total number of take-home cars is just a fraction of the total amount of county cars, the county admits that the additional costs generated by take-home cars can add up quickly.
“We have a huge budget, but everything helps and everything adds up,” said Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca in an interview with KRQE News 13.
Morgas Baca also admits that the county’s old take-home car policy has been lax in years past.
“I agree with that, I certainly agree with that,” said Morgas Baca.
Through a request under New Mexico Inspection of Public Records Act, KRQE News 13 obtained a current roster of all Bernalillo County employee with take-home cars, and the applications associated with those employees.
Records obtained by KRQE News 13 show there were at least 82 take-home vehicles in various county departments in early 2016. Based on the county’s own figures, it costs an estimated additional $700 to $800 dollars each year to let a worker take a car home. Out of those 82 cars, 42 vehicles were considered an IRS taxable benefit, meaning the that employees pay a fee on their yearly taxes for use of the vehicle. 40 vehicles were not considered an IRS taxable benefit.
Meanwhile, the county is trying to deal with a $19 million dollar budget hole. Employees are likely to take up to six furlough days in the current fiscal year, which extends from July 2016 through the end of June 2017.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” said Morgas Baca.
The county has had a take-home car policy on the books since 1992. However, that policy was void of virtually any criteria defining who is allowed to have a take-home vehicle.
Under the old policy, county employees only needed approval from their department director and the deputy county manager.
Some of the applications for take-home cars don’t have much of explanation of the need for the vehicle, beyond general claims of its intended use.
For example, on the take-home car application for Metropolitan Detention Center’s (MDC) “Ethics and Compliance” officer, the employee says he’s involved in 24/7 emergency planning and required to participate in “numerous community meetings and events,” along with work during evenings and holidays. Beyond the term “numerous,” there’s no indication of how many community meetings actually take place, when they occur, where they occur or how often they occur.
The wording in the take-home car application submitted by MDCs’s Ethics and Complaince officer is virtually the exact same wording used in 16 other take-home car applications. Most of those applications are from fellow MDC employees.
Over at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, the take-home car application for the “Finance Administrator” claims the vehicle is needed in order to “meet vendors sometimes after hours,” and during emergencies in order to “buy items needed (that are) not on hand.”
Then there’s the application for the Bernalillo County Assessor, who said she needs a take-home car to “commute to and from (the) work site for official purposes.”
KRQE News 13 described some of the take-home car applications to Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca.
“That’s exactly what my concern is, is those that you just brought up,” said Morgas Baca. “Those are the questions that we’re asking.”
“Over the years, is it fair to say that this program was possibly abused?” asked KRQE News 13 Reporter Chris McKee.
“You know what I think is, I think we can do better,” responded Morgas Baca. “It makes us take a closer look at what we’re doing and how we can be a more efficient government.”
The county manager says the effort to change is now underway. She points to an October 2015 audit of take-home cars as a catalyst for the county’s action. Morgas Baca began working as the Bernalillo County Manager in October 2015. Before that, she was the deputy county manager.
“It had to do with the fact that we needed to do a better job with our record keeping,” said Morgas Baca.
The county drafted and enacted a new take-home car policy in April and May. The new policy applies to both county employees and elected officials. The county is now in the process of reining in take-home cars that don’t need to be taken home.
Under the new policy, county employees need to prove that emergency response is part of their job responsibilities if they need a take-home car. So far, the county says it has already taken the keys back for 22 cars that were take-home vehicles.
When it changed the policy in mid-2016, the county said there were a total of 85 take-home cars on the books. The county now says there are 63 take-home vehicles. According to Morgas Baca, the take-home car reduction will save around $17,000 this budget year alone.
“I want to make sure that folks that really do need a take-home vehicle, do have one,” said Morgas Baca. “I’m not trying to penalize anybody, by no means, because we need to give them the tools that they require to do their jobs.”
The Bernalillo County Assessor Tanya Giddings and County Manager Julie Morgas Baca are among those who’ve given up their take-home cars.
“It’s a little inconvenient but I think in the long run, it’s worth it,” said Morgas Baca. “Earning the public’s trust and confidence is everything, and being an efficient government is critical, especially at this time.”
The county says it hopes to take the keys back for another 10 to 15 take-home vehicles this year.
To avoid overtime costs, the county says it will allow employees to take a car home at night if they’ll need it first thing in the morning in order to save on unnecessary trips into the county’s vehicle lot.