Buncombe County officials are considering policy changes regarding the use of county vehicles after receiving a complaint from the public that Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office deputies were using their patrol cars to take their children to school.
The complaint has triggered an avalanche of e-mail discussion between Sheriff Van Duncan and Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene, as well as county commissioners. The disagreement also highlights a bigger battle being waged between Duncan — an elected official who serves as the county’s top law-enforcement officer — and Greene, the county’s most powerful administrator. It’s a battle over the administrative functions of a department working to re-establish itself after being tarnished in Buncombe County’s largest corruption scandal, following the arrest and conviction of former Sheriff Bobby Medford on federal charges related to illegal gambling.
Duncan said the policy to allow deputies with take-home vehicles to drop their children off at school in the morning is long-standing. It improves the department’s visibility around schools, Duncan argues, and doesn’t incur any extra liability beyond what deputies already take on if, for example, they transport a member of the public following a traffic accident.
“I realize there might be some potential liability there, but it’s never cost the county any money,” Duncan said. “We encourage our officers to be a presence in schools. We felt like we get enough positive to outweigh the negative.” Duncan said he often drops off his son at Erwin Middle School on his way to work. He asserts that it’s time well-spent, it’s a help to his wife and his presence at school is a positive influence.
Greene said that sheriff’s deputies should adhere to the county-wide policy of barring non-county employees from operating or riding in county-owned vehicles. The existing policy allows department directors to grant exceptions, and it exempts the Sheriff’s Office to allow deputies to offer assistance in emergencies. But in tough economic times, the county should look hard for any cost savings and reduce liabilities, Greene said, and she wants the policy clarified.
“We want the officers to be responsible and be safe,” Greene said.
In another possible cost-cutting change, the county is considering charging county employees for miles driven outside Buncombe County, or forcing employees with take-home vehicles to park inside the county and drive their personal vehicles when they’re on personal business.
The Sheriff’s Office has 19 employees with take-home vehicles who live outside the county. Most live within a few miles of the county line, but two live about 12 miles from the department’s offices on Haywood Street, according to Duncan. He said forcing deputies who live outside the county to park their vehicles at the county line could be a hardship on those officers and leave the vehicles open to potential vandalism.
An advisory group comprised of county employees is reviewing the policy and studying possible changes. It will make recommendations to county commissioners, who will have the final say in the matter. Duncan said he would stop the practice of allowing his deputies to drop their children off at school if Greene could show that the issue would cost taxpayers more money in liability insurance. Greene said it would cost the county $100,000 to $500,000 more a year in insurance premiums if the county changed its policy to allow the practice.
The Mountain Xpress interviewed Duncan on Sept. 18, and Greene a week earlier. Following his interview, Duncan notified the Xpress that he planned to alert other media outlets regarding this story, to ensure that his side was told. Check back with Xpress for more developments.
— Jason Sandford, multimedia editor