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County Council hears vehicle use report recommending end of take-home cars

CountyCouncil2017UPPER MARLBORO – In the wake of controversy surrounding the use of county-owned vehicles, a committee has recommended eliminating take-home vehicles for elected officials.

The Vehicle Use Review Board, created by a Prince George’s County Council resolution in December 2016, issued its final report and briefed the council on its findings Sept. 12. The board, made up of three civically-engaged residents, dove into Administrative Procedures 610 (AP 610) and 621 (AP 621), and while it found some options in line with standards, it recommended removing the take-home vehicle option.

“In looking at those options, we looked locally, we looked regionally, we looked nationally to see what other policies and procedures existed,” said Dr. Jacqueline Brown, chair of the board. “In our review, we found in a lot of areas, there was no take-home vehicle (option).”

The board’s report recommends modifying the option to eliminate elected officials from those eligible to receive take-home vehicles. The suggested new wording is, “This category is intended for select appointed county officials, public safety employees with arrest powers, K-9 officers and certain other public safety personnel.”

Brown said “select” personnel include police and sheriff’s department officers, some state’s attorney’s office employees, some Department of Public Works and Transportation and Department of Homeland Security appointees, Department of Corrections personnel, and chief administrative officers- people who may be called upon to go directly from their home or other location to the scene of an event in the county.

“In looking at this, we looked at people who needed either certain equipment or a vehicle had to be fitted a certain way for them to be able to carry out their job,” Brown said.

The board was formed in light of a crash involving County Councilman Mel Franklin, who was driving a county-owned vehicle under the influence, and subsequent reporting by The Washington Post into the issue of the use of county vehicles by elected officials. Public opinion since the accident has clearly indicated residents’ dislike of the existing policy. As the vehicle use review board’s report states, “a large majority of Prince George’s constituents have commented on this issue and have expressed their displeasure with what they consider public officials misuse of this benefit or perk.”

County Council Chair Derrick Davis said in reaction to the public’s questions last year, many on the council have chosen on their own not to use take-home county vehicles.

“Some of the ideology and the recommendations inherent to this have already voluntarily been adhered to. So the members of this county council currently don’t have take-home cars anymore,” he said.

The report noted as of January 2017, only 37 county-owned vehicles out of a fleet of more than 3,000 were assigned for take-home use.

The other options provided in AP 610 include using county vehicles during the day and returning them at the end of the shift – which is recommended to remain unchanged – and providing reimbursement for officials who use their personal vehicles on county business. AP 610 currently provides for mileage reimbursement or a yearly vehicle allowance, but the review board is recommending getting rid of the allowance.

“The allowance is equivalent to the average cost of providing a County vehicle to an employee,” according to the report. “Currently, the policy allows for a $10,315 annual allowance for the use of personal vehicle based upon an anticipated 12,000 miles average annual use.”

Switching to the reimbursement standard would bring the county more in-line with other jurisdictions, none of which have an allowance, and could potentially save money. Twelve thousand miles would be reimbursed for about $4,300 under current county reimbursement rates, or a total of $6,420 at the IRS reimbursement rate of 53-and-a-half cents per mile. The board recommended raising the county’s 36 cents-per-mile reimbursement rate to the IRS rate.

Turning to AP 621, which contains “red flag” procedures for supervisors and others to monitor county vehicles users, the board found the policies laid out were appropriate, but recommended retraining for employees “on a periodic basis” to better enforce the policies.

“We thought that was very well done and the only thing that perhaps could be done is to monitor it a little bit more for those that are using county vehicles,” Brown said.

Vehicle Use Review Board Member Samuel Epps added the body also recommended “security details will be provided by the public safety division. It will be in that pool of cars.”

Davis thanked the board for its work and said the report will be shared with the county executive’s office as well as other county commissions who can look at implementing the recommendations.

“This report is the part of a larger reality, and this report will be forwarded to our county charter and compensation review committees to make recommendations with regard to that,” he said. “We owe a debt of gratitude to County Vehicle Use Review Board members. We are thankful for the contributions they have made throughout this process and applaud their important work.”

However, because the report’s recommendations would affect the current county councilmembers, implementation cannot begin until after the 2018 council is sworn in.

“The council as it sits cannot make determinations that impact compensation or things of that nature for itself,” Davis said. “It has to make them for the prospective incoming council.”

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