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Tax payers picking up tab for sharp increase in driving by county employees

The number of miles county government employees drive annually per year has increased sharply since 2004, and taxpayers are footing the resulting higher costs.

The county’s 2,600 or so employees racked up more than 5.6 million miles this fiscal year, which will end Saturday, up about 66 percent from almost 3.5 million in 2004.

The annual cost for fuel for the county’s 1,000-vehicle fleet has jumped $590,000 over that three-year span to $1,588,000 in the current 2006-07 fiscal year.

The Sheriff’s Department led the increase in mileage, accounting for one-third of the total. It more than doubled its mileage during the time span, to nearly 2 million miles a year from 857,000. The Probation and Social Services departments were the two next highest, according to the county administrator’s office.

Those three departments — and others that have shown increases — enumerate several reasons for the jump, chief among them growth and continuing improvement of services.

But it’s difficult to fully quantify the financial impact of the increase; individual departments within county government keep track of their own mileage rates and costs.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson hopes that changes, though, and he wants to see the county cut down on its mileage as fuel prices rise.

“It would make sense,” Gibson said. “We need to reduce mileage.”

Supervisor Katcho Achadjian also says it might be time for supervisors to take another look.

“I just want to make sure that things don’t get out of hand,” he said. “It’s all a matter of changing our attitude (and recognizing) that times have changed. Some might see it as micromanaging, but so be it.”

Why more traveling?

Individual departments cite a variety of reasons for the increase in mileage.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Rocky Souza said the spread of development to rural areas such as Shandon, Creston and San Miguel has fueled the need for more services from the Sheriff’s Department.

“The more people you get in there, they bring their problems with them,” Souza said.

Undersheriff Steve Bolts agreed that the demands of rural areas are the primary reason for the increasing mileage. Crime — including methamphetamine manufacturing— in outlying areas has been a growing concern for the county in recent years, Bolts said. Sheriff Pat Hedges has set up special rural patrols.

A lack of in-county facilities to treat drug and alcohol probationers has led to the increase in miles driven by the Probation Department, according to Director Kim Barrett. That department’s yearly annual mileage rose to 490,000 this year from 242,000 in 2004.

There has been “a sharp increase in adult officers transporting adult probationers all over the state to drug or alcohol (treatment) facilities because we do not have enough beds in our county,” Barrett said.

On top of that, probation officers must visit all juveniles on probation monthly, Barrett wrote The Tribune in an e-mail.

“We do have more employees, and they are definitely going more places,” she said, “because we have more probationers, and they have high risk to the community.”

Social Services Director Lee Collins said his department’s increase could be attributable to steps it has taken to improve its performance in how often social workers visit children involved in Child Welfare Services. The department is required to visit children every 30 days, Collins said.

“The more we improve,” he said, “the more we travel.”

Decentralization

The county does not track the percentage of its workers who need to drive regularly to carry out duties.

“So many depar tments have outside functions, serving the citizens of the county,” General Services Director Duane Leib wrote in an e-mail. “The county is 3,000 square miles, and we have business all over the county.”

And hard mileage numbers are difficult to come by for the county overall, because most departments are given leeway to manage their mileage, within general guidelines.

“General county policy is to minimize miles driven and limit the number of ‘take home’ assignments,’’ according to County Administrative Officer David Edge. “But the department head, obviously, has a lot of discretion in this area — particularly in the public safety arena. It’s pretty difficult to push ‘economy’ against ‘protecting the public.’ ”

Different departments are given leeway on who can take county cars home and under what conditions, although Edge’s office has to sign off on all except the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Department.

According to Collins, general guidelines require the employee to use a county car only for business. He said, for example, that a child welfare employee might need a car at home for emergencies.

“There are ‘on-call’ (workers) who are expected to respond overnight to allegations of child abuse (or) neglect,” Collins wrote.

Because of the decentralization of these decisions and the lack of broad oversight, there are no detailed, coordinated proposals to reduce mileage in the face of rising gasoline prices.

Gibson, though, told The Tribune that “some sort of strategy … would make sense.” He said departments should track the miles per vehicle and plan their visits in a way that saves miles.

Although he has no formal proposal in place, Gibson said “there may be an opportunity to look at it” at an upcoming supervisors’ meeting.

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