Neb. audit questions number of state-owned cars

AP News
Posted: Dec 14, 2009 3:24 PM

More than 1,000 state-owned vehicles get minimal use, according to an audit released Monday, raising the question of whether Nebraska's government has made too many trips to the car lot at taxpayers' expense.

That means about 15 percent of the vehicles the state owned during the audit period sat idle much of the time, according to the audit. State Auditor Mike Foley launched the wide-ranging audit of state-owned cars after receiving citizen complaints of vehicles being misused.

"When you see vehicles driven just a few hundred miles a month and used just a handful of days, you have to ask why you own them, why you pay insurance, why you maintain them," Foley said.

One state official noted that the number of small passenger vehicles owned by the state has dropped over the last few years. And the University of Nebraska said the figures showing scant use of some of its vehicles includes specialized maintenance and utility trucks.

The audit, which covered from mid-2007 to mid-2008, defined low-use vehicles as those driven less than 500 miles per month, on average. It did not give any estimate of how much money the little-used vehicles cost the state.

An arm of the Legislature that researches the performance of state agencies and operations and then offers recommendations has decided to look into some of the issues raised by the audit.

David Lechner, the University of Nebraska's vice president for business and finance, said the figures showing that about half of the 64 school-owned cars sampled in the audit get little use "could be misleading."

"A lot of these aren't passenger vehicles," said Lechner. A 2003 Chevy truck owned by the university and used on just two days in June 2008, for instance, is used to haul hazardous waste at the Lincoln campuses. Two other vehicles mentioned in the audit are tow trucks used for crash tests.

Lechner added that when showing how many days the vehicles were used, the audit included only two summer months, when university operations are much slower than the regular school year.

While Foley says the audit raises questions about the number of vehicles owned by the university and other state agencies, the number of state-owned passenger vehicles has actually fallen in recent years.

In mid-2008, according to the audit, more than two dozen state agencies owned a total of 4,958 passenger vehicles _ 274 fewer than in 2004. The audit did not provide historical data on the total number of vehicles owned by state agencies. Only 2008 figures were provided. That year, there were a total of 8,207 state-owned vehicles valued at nearly $219 million.

The current number of state-owned vehicles was unavailable Monday because of the large number of agencies that track the figures.

The director of the state agency in charge of buying most of the state's passenger vehicles weighing 1 ton or less said the number of such cars it holds titles to has dropped about 3 percent over the last four years.

Carlos Castillo, director of the Department of Administrative Services, added that it is not a problem that a couple dozen state agencies and offices are allowed to buy vehicles without oversight from his agency.

"The system the way it's set up now, which gives certain segments of government the ability to manage their own fleets, makes sense," Castillo said.

State law says that the department is supposed to make or approve all purchases of state-owned passenger vehicles.

But Foley said that the department holds the titles of less than a quarter of all state-owned passenger vehicles because of a "patchwork of conflicting statutes and legal rulings over the years." Foley said more oversight by the department could help ensure the state doesn't have too many vehicles.