Vehicle emissions program assailed by state auditors Poor recordkeeping, staffing, equipment cited by officials

September 12, 1996|By Marina Sarris and Melody Simmons | Marina Sarris and Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Audits of Maryland's Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program have uncovered monetary irregularities and recordkeeping so sloppy that state officials could not adequately track the millions of dollars collected in inspection fees.

In reports from October to July, state auditors also found inadequate staffing and many instances in which it took weeks to repair malfunctioning inspection equipment.

The audits, released recently by the state in response to a request from The Sun, provide the first hard evidence of the scope of the problems that have affected the program. The testing is run by MARTA Technologies Inc. of Nashville, Tenn., under a five-year, $96.9 million contract with the state.

The reports reinforce stories told by motorists who have visited the 19 stations -- some exiting with tales of frustration, rudeness and incompetence that have circulated all the way to the governor's office.

MARTA is responsible for operating and maintaining vehicle emissions inspections stations in 13 Maryland counties and Baltimore. Emissions testing is key to the state's efforts to reduce smog in the Baltimore and Washington areas, as required by federal law.

News of the audits comes at a crucial time in MARTA's 21-month history in Maryland. Company officials announced last month that MARTA is being sold to a rival emissions testing company, Envirotest Systems Corp. -- which ran Maryland's testing program until MARTA took over last year. The sale would prompt the transfer of Maryland's contract to Envirotest, pending final approvals.

Last winter, state officials say they had had enough of MARTA's poor performance, and "we cracked down on their management," said Anne S. Ferro, associate administrator of the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.

Both she and MARTA officials say the company's overall performance has improved since July, the date of the last report provided to The Sun, but they disagree on the extent of that improvement. Ferro said MARTA was doing just a "marginal" job, while a company executive said his firm's work was "very good."

"The system is working very effectively now," said Robert A. Youdelman, a senior vice president of The Allen Group Inc., MARTA's parent company. "We have put in place new procedures to routinely reconcile all of these [monetary] items on a daily basis, and we brought in a new business manager to Maryland."

Ferro agreed that MARTA's recordkeeping has improved since a May 29 audit report described various flaws. The report said the state could not audit the fees collected and deposited by MARTA because the company did not provide "detailed enough" information.

Nonetheless, the state does not suspect widespread fraud or theft among MARTA employees collecting the $12-per-vehicle inspection fees, Ferro said, because the $15 million deposited annually was "about what we expected."

"Well over 95 percent of transactions are being accounted for and are fine," said Ferro, referring to the inspections of 1.2 million vehicles a year. "We have a confidence level that we're collecting all our money."

The state reconciles fee accounts monthly and has found both shortages and overages in the money collected, Ferro said. When a shortage is found, the amount is deducted from the management fee the state pays MARTA.

By midsummer, MARTA had improved its bookkeeping to the point that the state could begin auditing fees currently being collected, although not those received in past months, she said.

This spring, customer Michael Mack went to the station on Erdman Avenue in Baltimore thinking he would be charged $22 for a test -- the $12 fee and a $10 late fee. When he got there, though, he says, the MARTA employee asked for $42.50 for his emissions test.

"I questioned him about it and he said, 'OK, give me $25,' " Mack said in an interview. "I complained to the MVA and they told me they would mail me a refund of $25."

Some of the irregularities cited in the audits point to a casual attitude toward recordkeeping and money handling.

Last March, for example, auditors found monetary discrepancies at the Owings Mills station. On 19 of 22 days, MARTA's reports of the fees it collected did not match the deposit slips for those days. When auditors returned for a follow-up visit later that spring, they continued to find discrepancies on nine of 11 days examined.

Meanwhile, at stations in Harford County, Annapolis, West Baltimore, Frederick County, and Howard County this spring, auditors uncovered instances in which employees either failed to deposit money on a daily basis, or kept such poor records that it couldn't be determined when money was being deposited. Such failures violate a state requirement that money be deposited daily as a safeguard.

The audits also documented problems with customer service, including cases in which motorists had to wait longer for emissions tests than the 25-minute maximum mandated by the contract.

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