County Fire off hook for vehicles

The temporary “disappearance” of four vehicles that County Fire sought to auction off has led to a change in the way it disposes of its used vehicles, the agency said Tuesday.

County Fire officials told the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors last week that the department had not been paid the $10,000 it was expecting for two Ford Crown Victoria cars and two fire engines it had declared surplus in 2007 and 2008 because the auction house that bought them declared bankruptcy before it paid.

County Fire officials said they were unable to track down either the auction house or the vehicles. They asked the supervisors to give the agency “relief from liability” for the $10,000.

Supervisors complied.

On Tuesday, Bill Winter of County Fire told The Tribune that it has since merged its vehicle disposal operation with the county’s Fleet Services Division, which handles surplus vehicles in greater numbers and with greater frequency.

Winter said the current episode began when the auction house picked up the two Crown Victorias and two International fire engines. County Fire had been dealing with Nationwide Auction Systems for several years, Winter said.

The $10,000 figure for the four vehicles is a ballpark estimate, Winter said. The vehicles are old and — especially the fire engines — have little market value, he said. Often they are sold for scrap, he said.

Generally, Winter said, payment comes later, after the auctioneer has sold the vehicles. But this time it didn’t happen.

County Fire didn’t realize the vehicles had gone missing until it conducted an audit in 2009, Winter said.

County Fire discovered that the auction house had declared bankruptcy and owed millions of dollars in unpaid taxes. By checking records at the California Department of Motor Vehicles, County Fire learned that two of the four vehicles had new owners, while County Fire remained the registered owner of the other two.

Should County Fire try to get the $10,000, or get back the two vehicles it still apparently owned? County Fire consulted with fleet services, the county counsel and the auditor-controller.

They advised that County Fire remove itself from liability. Pursuing the vehicles could have ended up costing “significantly more” than the $10,000 County Fire is owed, Winter said.

Where are the missing vehicles now? Winter said County Fire doesn’t know, but surmises that the two still registered to County Fire might be under the control of the auction house’s bankruptcy receiver.

With the Board of Supervisors’ action last week taking them off the county’s books, it has become a moot question.