Zurik: S&WB's take-home car policy guzzling taxpayers' gas

Published: Nov. 20, 2014 at 7:20 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 21, 2014 at 3:15 AM CST
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S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant
S&WB Executive Director Cedric Grant

NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Before sunrise, our camera catches a New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board vehicle, getting onto the Causeway.

The driver of this truck is one of 11 S&WB employees who live on the North Shore and drive a taxpayer-funded vehicle to work, every day.

“It's a total waste of taxpayer funds,” says New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux. ”It's not necessary, and it costs money. And what it costs is a lot more than the gas. We pay insurance, we pay deterioration, you know, depreciation. So it's a lot of money.”

Let's try to do the math. A few commute 80 miles a day. If they do the drive 48 weeks a year, that's 19,200 miles of wear and tear on the vehicle. If the vehicle averages 16 miles per gallon and the price of gas is $2.67 a gallon, that's $3,204 a year in gas alone - for one car.

Are these simply perks for the employees?

“That's the only way you can look at it,” Quatrevaux says. “It's not necessary, it's not necessary to offer someone a car to get them to go to work for the Sewerage and Water Board. It's totally unnecessary. What it is is a donation of public funds to the employees of that place.”

Quatrevaux says his office has started an audit of the Sewerage and Water Board, focusing on the take-home cars.

“When I got here, I was at a loss to understand why everybody seemed to have a car, a take-home car, a government vehicle,” Quatrevaux tells us. “I've got a lot of federal experience. And you don't get a take-home car in the federal government. In fact, only a cabinet secretary, that level, gets a car.”

At the Sewerage and Water Board,

. That's about one out of seven of the agency's more than 700 cars and trucks.

“Wow, that's an awful lot of vehicles,” Quatrevaux says. “And a lot of their vehicles are not just automobiles. There's, you know, fairly substantial trucks and things like that. I hope those aren't going out on a long trip every day.”

"If they expect that we're going to manage the system, the difficult work that it is, and I expect them to show up, then I think I need to provide the resources." - Cedric Grant

. It now states that, to get a take-home vehicle, an employee has to "respond to emergency situations outside of normal work hours," noting that must happen "at least four times a month." And an employee who lives more than 40 miles from their work site cannot have a take home vehicle.

The policy adds that all take-home vehicle assignments will be reviewed by, and must have written approval, of the S&WB's vehicle committee. The policy includes a series of forms the employees must fill out.

We ask Cedric Grant, the agency's executive director, whether those exist, and he responds, “I have not seen them. If they exist, we'll be happy to provide them. I'm like you, I'm learning.”

Grant started as the board's executive director about 18 weeks ago. He also plans to start looking into the number of take-home cars.

The Sewerage and Water Board gave us copies of the forms. But 13 employees who have take-home vehicles apparently didn't fill them out. In fact, the form has a page that shows whether it was approved by the committee, and says this form is invalid unless it has been approved.

Not one of the 93 forms has an approval signature. Remember, that policy states an employee cannot live more than 40 miles from their work site.

But the records show that six of them do. One drives all the way to Albany, Louisiana, in Livingston Parish. The shortest route for his daily commute is 62.9 miles, one way.

Again, the policy says an employee must be called in at least four times a month to get a take-home vehicle. But we reviewed the agency's forms and found 65 of the 95 did not comply with the policy. Many, such as two employees who take their cars home to Madisonville and another in Slidell, simply left that part blank.

And remember the employee who lives in Albany. His form says he responded after hours eight times in one year. The policy states that 8 would have to be 48 for him to get his vehicle – in this case, a 2012 Ford F-250 pick-up.

“People relate to cars,” Quatrevaux reminds us. “They know what cars are, they have cars, you know. And so much of government involves legal processes that most people don't understand. But when you get to cars and salaries and things like that, they understand it. And they don't like it.”

All of Jefferson Parish government has 58 take-home vehicles; its sewerage and water departments have 28. New Orleans City Hall has 82. All have fewer than the Sewerage and Water Board's 108 take-home vehicles.

“Well hopefully, when we look at the efficiencies that we can put in place, that we might be able to get to something similar to that,” says Grant, who also serves as the city's deputy mayor of facilities, infrastructure and community development.

He also emphasizes that a lot of what S&WB workers do is emergency work, so a sizable take-home fleet will always exist.

“If nobody expects key managers in my organization to show up in the middle of the night when something happens, then we certainly don't need to have any take-home vehicles,” Grant tells us. “But if they do, if they expect that we're going to manage the system, the difficult work that it is, and I expect them to show up, then I think I need to provide the resources.”

What does he consider a key manager? “My general superintendent,” he begins, “that manages the whole system. The deputy general superintendent. We have many communications issues that occur during the course of it, so my communications manager and folks like that.”

"You don't get a take-home car in the federal government. In fact, only a cabinet secretary, that level, gets a car.” - Ed Quatrevaux

But why do those workers need a take-home car to show up for work? Why can't they just show up on the jobsite in their personal cars?

"Well, I'm sure that that's an option," Grant acknowledges.

On those take-home vehicle forms, the Sewerage and Water Board asked for the "critical functions" and "special skills" that required them to remain on call, and that essentially allowed them to be eligible for a vehicle. The responses include an S&WB auto mechanic, Harold Heller; Robert Miller, who says his critical function is "decision making and communications"; James Thomas, who says "on multiple occasions he "has to come to the yard to get spare keys for accidental locked vehicles"; and James Arnold, who has to "give speeches at trade meetings."

When Cedric Grant reviews the take-home vehicle policy, he'll also be reviewing himself - records show he drives a take-home car, too.

"We'll analyze the policy and we'll make the adjustments and make it as efficient and effective as we can," Grant says. "But I'm always going to reserve the right to have the ability to manage this organization and use the resources as best I can."

That policy states that all employees who have a car must have $3 deducted from their paycheck daily to cover some costs. Last Friday, we asked S&WB if that money was actually getting deducted from paychecks. As of Thursday night they still had not answered that question.

For the inspector general, the number of take-home vehicles, 108, just simply doesn't add up.

“We need money, you know?” he says. “We need to stop spending it on little things like this. And they're relatively little - but they add up.”

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