Audit: DC Govt. Vehicle Fleet in Fiscal Red Zone

Published June 21, 2010

Despite having nearly a decade to develop a comprehensive vehicle fleet management strategy, the District of Columbia’s Department of Public Works (DPW) failed to do so, with predictably adverse results for local taxpayers.

That’s the conclusion of a recent investigation by the DC Auditor’s office. The findings have relevance for governments across the country.

“Before asking taxpayers for more of their hard-earned money, state and local officials would be wise to reexamine their fleet management practices,” said Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union. “They might find significant savings just sitting in parking lots and garages waiting to be realized.”

Oversight Failures Cited
In May of 2000, then-DC Mayor Anthony Williams charged the DPW with “all phases of motor equipment management.” A follow-on order a year later made agency directors responsible for managing vehicles under their jurisdiction, in consultation with DPW. But according to the audit, which covered fiscal years 2008 and 2009, both ends of this oversight process seem to have failed:

  • The five agencies selected for audit (Child and Family Services, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Employment Services, Health, and Public Schools) listed 297 motor vehicles in their inventories, while DPW reported 1,409—a discrepancy of more than 1,100 cars and trucks.
  • Since 2002, employees with the agencies examined had racked up unpaid parking and traffic fines worth $71,690. The report noted tickets remained outstanding on cars assigned to the mayor and the chancellor of public schools.
  • Only one of the five agencies—Child and Family Services—had a written fleet policy that passed muster with the auditor. Others did not, and employee abuse resulted, such as a Health Department senior manager who “repeatedly” used a vehicle for personal business.
  • For its part, DPW did not did not provide a government-wide set of uniform procedures for agencies to follow, and it failed in basic data collection, enforcement, and oversight tasks. This led to wastes of time and tax dollars, such as $27,395 of fuel charges for 15 vehicles the city didn’t own or lease, and eight unserviceable Consumer and Regulatory Affairs vehicles sitting on a parking lot “for 15 months in bureaucratic limbo” because DPW wouldn’t provide guidance on how to dispose of them.

Problem’s True Extent Unknown
These findings likely understate the fiscal fallout from DC vehicle-fleet woes, because the auditor examined only some of the 78 agencies that own or lease more than 2,600 vehicles (not including police and emergency medical services).

NTU’s Sepp told the local CBS TV affiliate, “This is only a sampling.… We don’t know the true extent of the problem, but we better get to the bottom of it soon. This could mean hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars of wasted money.”

The auditor concluded DPW must set down solid rules, not just guidance or vague advice, for managing the city’s fleet.

This would include a plan to collect unpaid parking and traffic fines from city workers, better control of government fuel-charge cards, analysis of accidents involving DC personnel and remedies to avoid them in the future, an annual citywide vehicle inventory process, regular and uniform data collection from all agencies, and a constantly updated list of authorized vehicle users.

Without such steps, the auditor concluded, “The District of Columbia’s fleet will continue to operate as an inefficient, de-centralized system that lacks consistent policies and procedures, accurate fleet data and effective City-wide internal controls that protect citizens, visitors, and resources of the District of Columbia.”

Problems Also Found Elsewhere
Other state and local governments have identified cost-saving opportunities in their vehicle management practices as well.

In February of 2009, Michigan’s Auditor General identified as much as $1.4 million of improper payments over a two-and-a-half-year period from the Office of Vehicle and Travel Services, including excessive mileage reimbursements and unnecessary car washes.

In July 2009, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) ordered a 15 percent cut in the state’s vehicle inventory after Caltrans’ Division of Audits and Investigations uncovered widespread abuse of take-home car privileges.

The move was projected to save taxpayers more than $24 million in its first year.

Rachael Slobodien ([email protected]) is communications manager for the National Taxpayers Union.