Buncombe County auditor details wasteful spending on vehicle fleet

The Buncombe County Sheriff's Department has ended a long-standing policy of allowing deputies in county-owned cruisers to drop their children off at local schools while on their way to work.

The department's previous policy of allowing school drop-offs increased the county's insurance liability and violated a state law banning non-government employees from using publicly owned vehicles, an internal county audit found earlier this year. In a July memo to County Manager Wanda Greene, Sheriff Van Duncan said he was ending what had been a routine practice.

The finding was just one of several that came out of an audit undertaken in November 2008 and issued in April 2009. Other findings included:
• Some county departments weren't following Internal Revenue Service rules regarding the proper reporting of fringe benefits when employees are allowed to drive home county-owned vehicles.
• The county spent $224,769 on costs associated with allowing employees to take vehicles home. In some cases that money should be recouped.
• About $650 in taxpayers' money was wasted on buying 3,250 gallons of high-grade fuel for some vehicles when the high-grade fuel wasn't necessary.

County auditor Tim Flora's review followed a dispute last year between Duncan and Greene over the Sheriff's Department policy of allowing deputies to use their cars to drop off their kids at local schools. Duncan had argued that the long-standing policy improved law-enforcement visibility in and around schools without incurring any extra liability. Duncan readily admitted that he often dropped his son off at Erwin Middle School on his way to work.

Greene argued that sheriff's deputies should adhere to the county's general policy barring non-employees from operating or riding in county-owned vehicles. The audit found that if the practice were to continue, it would cost the county thousands more in liability insurance.

In his July 15 memo to Greene, Duncan said he would end the school drop-offs.

"We have decided to stop the routine practice of letting our officers transport their children to school and instead will only allow it as the policy now states in emergency situations with division head approval," Duncan wrote.

"As I had communicated in several other emails, if our previous practice of allowing this was going to cost more money in insurance coverage, I don't feel that the benefit outweighs the cost. We will communicate this to our staff before the start of the next school year."

The county audit found that the planning, emergency management services, building maintenance and solid waste departments weren't properly recording the use of take-home vehicles for tax purposes. In some cases, employees properly reported their personal use of county vehicles, but the finance department failed to correctly withhold employees' payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare and failed to pay the employer's matching contribution.

Expenses related to the private use of county vehicles amounted to $157,758 for public-safety vehicles and $67,011 for other county cars and trucks in the 12 months that ended November 2008. The audit recommended recouping the expenses incurred from the private use of county vehicles through a payroll deduction of $681 a year ($3 a day for 227 days), thus effectively taking away the fringe benefit. But it recommended exempting the drivers of public-safety vehicles from the deduction.

Greene told Xpress that nearly all the issues brought forth in the audit had been addressed through policy changes.

To read the full county vehicle-use audit, as well as Duncan's e-mail exchange with Greene, go to The Xpress Files at mountainx.com/xpressfiles.

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