County audit identifies wasteful spending on vehicle fleet

School gets back in session this week, but don’t expect to see a Buncombe County Sheriff’s Department deputy driving up to a local school in one of the department’s black-and-white cruisers to drop off a child.

That’s because the department’s policy of allowing the school drop-offs increased the county’s insurance liability and violated federal tax rules, as well as a state law banning the private use of publicly owned vehicles, an internal county audit found earlier this year. Sheriff Van Duncan, in a July memo to County Manager Wanda Greene, said he was ending what had been routine practice.

The finding was just one of several that came out of an audit undertaken in November 2008 and issued in April 2009. Others included:

– Some county departments weren’t following Internal Revenue Service rules regarding the proper reporting of the fringe benefit of allowing some employees to drive home county-owned vehicles.

– The county spent $224,769 to subsidize the costs of allowing employees to use take-home vehicles, money which should be recouped in some cases.

– 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 allowing deputies to use their cars to drop off their kids at local schools. Duncan 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 adhered to the county’s general policy barring non-employees from operating or riding in county-owned vehicles. The county audit found that if the practice were to continue, the county would have to begin treating take home law enforcement vehicles as a fringe benefit under IRS guidelines, which 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.”

In terms of the IRS reporting regarding take-home vehicles, the county audit found that the planning department, emergency management services, building maintenance and solid waste department weren’t properly recording the fringe benefit for tax purposes. In some cases where employees did properly report, the county finance department failed to correctly withhold employees’ payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare and failed to pay the employer matching contribution.

The commuting use of vehicles cost the county $224,769 — $157,758 for public safety vehicles and $67,011 for other county cars and trucks. IRS rules exempt emergency vehicles, but the county audit found that other costs should be recouped through a payroll deduction of $681 a year ($3 a day for 227 days), thus effectively taking away the taxable fringe benefit.

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

Click here to go to Xpress Files and read the full county vehicle use audit, as well as Duncan’s e-mail exchange with Greene.


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