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Costs Add Up for Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Employees Using County Vehicles for Commuting

The 59 take-home vehicles cost the county almost half a million dollars for 2014, according to an Auditor-Controller's Office report

The issue of vehicle costs for sheriff’s department employee commuting was addressed in an audit and is on the administrative agenda for Tuesday’s Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting.
The issue of vehicle costs for sheriff’s department employee commuting was addressed in an audit and is on the administrative agenda for Tuesday’s Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors meeting. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

A recent audit found that Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department employees commuting to work from their homes in county vehicles, some from out of county and at long distances, ran up almost half a million dollars last year in fuel and maintenance costs.

The audit was conducted by the county Auditor-Controller’s Office, and looked at all sheriff’s employees authorized to use county-owned vehicles to travel between their homes and work locations on a regular basis between July 2014 and May 2015.

“The sheriff’s take‐home vehicles are primarily unmarked sedans, trucks, vans and sport-utility vehicles that are equipped with lights, sirens, and radio equipment, and often carry other equipment such as personal protective gear,” the report said.

Out of the department’s 259 service vehicles, 59 are take-home vehicles. 

County policy allows for Sheriff’s Department employees to use the vehicles to commute from their homes to work with approval, and the department maintains this makes sure law enforcement can respond immediately to unforeseen emergencies.

That readiness isn’t without cost, however.

“Excluding those employees who may partially or occasionally commute in county vehicles, we estimated the annual cost to the county of sheriff employees using county vehicles to commute to be $446,000 for calendar year 2014 and $356,000 for calendar year 2015,” the report said.

A map was also published in the report with the locations of vehicles included on the sheriff’s July 2014 vehicle take-home list. It shows employees driving from their homes to work in Santa Barbara as far east as Santa Paula and as far north as Creston, east of Atascadero.  

Another pin on the map shows a driver from New Cuyama driving to Santa Barbara for work.

Over 800,000 miles of commuting were logged in 2014.

As of July of last year, 15 of those employees lived outside of the county, numbers that are down to eight this year.

The report points out that in addition to the costs, the use of county vehicle for commuting increases the county’s liability exposure.

This map shows from where Sheriff’s Department employees were using county vehicle for commuting. The cost of county vehicles used for commuting, which amount to almost $500,000 in 2014 for the Sheriff’s Department, be examined by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. Click to view larger
This map shows from where Sheriff’s Department employees were using county vehicle for commuting. The cost of county vehicles used for commuting, which amount to almost $500,000 in 2014 for the Sheriff’s Department, be examined by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. (Santa Barbara County Auditor-Controller’s Office)

“Using General Services’ accident data and the sheriff’s 2014 annual commute miles, we estimated that up to 10 accidents per year may be attributable to the use of county vehicles for commuting,” the report said.

“Moreover, the county is responsible for up to $500,000 per a loss for any general-liability claims related to these accidents.”

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors will be asked to receive and file the report on the commuting policies. Because the report is on the administrative agenda, no discussion is planned on it unless a supervisor asks to bring it up.

The audit set out to estimate the annual cost of sheriff’s employees using county-owned vehicles to commute and see if there were any alternatives. The county also wanted to see whether the department complied with IRS regulations as well as the county’s own rules on take-home vehicles.

Information wasn’t provided on employees who partially or occasionally commute in county vehicles, so they weren’t included in the audit.

The evaluation was recommended last May by the Santa Barbara County Grand Jury, which studied the take-home vehicle issue.

Some of the alternatives could be revoking the vehicle usages for employees who use the vehicle 50 percent or more of the time for commuting, the report said.  

Limiting the vehicles just to people who live in the county, or providing an annual car allowance instead, were also listed.

A cost breakdown from the Santa Barbara County audit. Click to view larger
A cost breakdown from the Santa Barbara County audit.  (Santa Barbara County Auditor-Controller’s Office)

All but two employees, who were not sworn officers but were still using the vehicles to commute, were found to be in compliance with IRS rules.

One of those employees was using the vehicle to transport a family member, the report stated, even though county rules state the vehicles are only for use for county business.

The audit also found that commute miles listed for 25 employees were inaccurate by more than 10 miles and 10 percent when compared to online mapping software, the report said.

About 11 employees had incorrect residences or work stations listed.

The Sheriff’s Department issued a response in early October to the findings, agreeing with some but taking issue with others.

The department agreed to check its vehicle listings and inventories annually for accuracy, but when looking at vehicle alternatives, the department said that the alternatives suggested by the Auditor-Controller's office may seem feasible but didn’t take into account the nature of the job.

“Personnel who are assigned vehicles are in 24-hour, on‐call assignments, and are required to respond to a variety of unforeseen emergencies in a timely manner with specialized equipment and expertise,” the sheriff's department wrote in response to the Grand Jury report. 

“Any policy which tends to limit the ability of certain public safety employees to rapidly respond directly to an emergency at any time of day or night is contrary to the public-safety mission of the Sheriff’s Office.”

Sheriff's spokeswoman Kelly Hoover noted that one of the first assignments given to Undersheriff Barney Melekian after he was hired was to review the number of Sheriff's Department take-home vehicles in response to the Grand Jury's report.

The Sheriff's Office worked closely with the Auditor-Controller's Office, Hoover said, and evaluated the number of take-home vehicles, the locations where the employees reside, and the need for those employees to respond to unforeseen emergencies in the shortest time possible.

"As a result, 10 cars were removed from the fleet, which is a net reduction of $90,000 dollars and a 20-percent cost savings," Hoover said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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