Howard cuts down free rides

Curbing employee use of county cars might save more than $500,000

July 30, 2008|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun reporter

In a move expected to save over half a million dollars, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman announced yesterday new restrictions on take-home vehicles that will leave 119 employees looking for a new ride to work starting Sept. 1.

"Take-home vehicles were never meant as a benefit to the employee. They were meant to benefit county services," which will not suffer, Ulman said. County police Chief William J. McMahon said he plans to announce added fuel-saving measures for police this week.

The cost-saving move is expected to conserve about $581,000 through the rest of this fiscal year, ending June 30, 2009, and $700,000 next fiscal year, based on a per-mile formula the county uses to gauge vehicle costs. Police patrol officers who take cars home won't be affected, Ulman said.

The move would restrict more than half of the 207 county vehicles driven home by employees, including police public information spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn. Others affected include several deputy department heads, 25 fire officials, 29 sheriff's deputies and 44 Public Works employees, according to county Chief Administrative Officer Lonnie Robbins. Sheriff James T. Fitzgerald, who is elected, will not lose take-home use of his vehicle.

No executive staff members would lose their take-home vehicles, Robbins said.

"If we're going to manage a downturn in the economy without raising taxes, we've got to find these kinds of savings," Ulman said. He added that a careful review of take-home county vehicles was needed anyway.

"Frankly, it's really been the first time in quite some time we'd scrutinized who had them," Ulman said about the vehicles.

"We had some very tough discussions with department heads," Ulman said, adding that those who are taking county vehicles home are not allowed to use them for personal errands.

Many are used by people who could be called back to work for emergencies, but "you don't need it seven days a week in your driveway," Ulman said. "The savings are obviously important, but vehicles should be used to help people do their jobs, not as a perk."

The vehicles will now go into the county motor pool for use once employees arrive at work. The reduction in mileage should save money on maintenance, gasoline, and insurance and could help the county postpone purchase of more new vehicles, officials said.

The move, which follows a three-month review of each vehicle's use, was praised by County Council Chairman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who had worried aloud during the annual budget review in May about the slowing economy and its effect on county revenues.

"As far as I'm concerned, the entire council supports this move," Watson said, noting that the council's auditor suggested the topic for review.

"It's not going to be popular with employees, but it's the right thing for taxpayers."

Calvin Ball, an east Columbia Democrat, called it "a great move in the right direction."

Howard County's action follows similar restrictions announced in June by Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold, and it's not the first time take-home vehicles have been restricted in Howard County, either. During the 1991-1992 recession, former Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker sold county vehicles being taken home by employees to help fill a budget gap.

Ulman has taken other cost-saving moves in recent months, eliminating the county print shop and cable television studio and consolidating health insurance contracts. However, he's also initiated programs that increase spending, like the purchase of hybrid transit buses and cars, large wheeled recycling bins and the Healthy Howard program for uninsured county residents.

larry.carson@baltsun.com

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