By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Last Thursday, the Finance Committee discussed Bedford’s municipal vehicles—specifically the so-called “take-home” vehicles, which are used by town employees for work as well as for commuting between work and home. Bedford has 19 such vehicles in a fleet of 33, according to a written report by Town Manager Rick Reed.
Reed’s report included comparative data from a survey conducted with nine other towns. That information shows that Bedford is not unique in having a policy that permits take-home vehicles. What is in question is the whether 19 vehicles is reasonable for the level of need.
Last winter, the issue of take-home vehicles was raised during town elections when candidate for Selectman, Bob Marshall, brought voter attention to the matter. Marshall stated, at the time, that Bedford had 23 take-home vehicles, a number he believed to be excessive. Though Marshall’s bid for the Selectman’s seat was not successful—and the number he cited was too highby four—the question of how many take-home vehicles Bedford should have continued at Town Meeting and is now being reviewed by the Selectmen and the Finance Committee. A subcommittee of two Selectmen and two Finance Committee members has been appointed to study the matter.
The Finance Committee reviewed the findings of Reed’s survey as well as the accompanying background information included in the report. One of the reasons used to justify having a take-home vehicle is the need for “emergency response.” According to the report, all 19 such vehicles are categorized as “on call” because personnel who have them might be required to return to work in a crisis. Many of the staff classified as emergency responders have specialized knowledge and skills—and often carry tools or equipment—that would be needed in the event of a system failure in municipal buildings or facilities.
Other employees—most notably senior administration—receive a vehicle as part of their compensation package. Reed’s report noted that this is a taxable benefit and that these employees must report it as income to the IRS. The positions in this category include: Town Manager, Public Works Director, Facilities Operations Manager, and six Facilities Maintenance Technicians. Others, who receive the benefit as emergency responders, are not required to report the use of the vehicle as a benefit.
In at least three cases in Bedford—one each in the police, fire and public works departments—a single position that originally included a take-home vehicle was later split into two positions. Since the newly created jobs were considered equivalent to the existing ones, they also included the take-home vehicle benefit.
Take-home vehicles are also provided with fuel at the town’s expense .Gasoline is purchased at a better-than-market rate; last year the average was $3.15 a gallon. In 2011, the 19 take-home vehicles used fuel totaling $50,293.94, an average of $2,647 for each car.
Reed noted in the report that while certain positions do not receive take-home vehicle benefits, personnel may still be required to respond to emergencies or to use their cars for town business. In these cases, the employee is reimbursed for gas and mileage at a rate of $.50/mile.
Finance Committee member Barbara Perry used the figures in the report to get a bearing on how Bedford compares with the nine other surveyed towns. Taking the responses submitted by all the communities, she calculated that 10 is the average number of take home vehicles and that 15 is the average number of vehicles categorized as “on-call.” Perry recommended that the subcommittee “look at each of the positions [that now have a take-home vehicle] to justify that it’s still relevant to include a vehicle for each.”
Member Tom Busa speculated that it might be more cost effective to create a secure area where employees could pick up a town vehicle for work use, but not take one home after work.
Steven Steele, another committee member, wondered about the need for so many emergency responders. “How do you define emergency response and how does a particular position relate to that?” Pointing out that two emergency responders live at least 45 miles away, he wondered how practical it is to expect them to address a crisis. Steele and committee member Meredith McCulloch agreed that a history of emergency response incidents should be compiled so that the committee can understand what the historical level of need has been.
Steele also pointed out that in some notable cases over 80% of a vehicle’s use was for commuting, not for working. “It’s just wrong,” he said.
Member Rich Bowen stated, that in his opinion it should not be the policy of the town to reimburse employees or provide cars for commuting. “There might be limited exceptions that could be justified. For example, the police and fire chiefs because they have specially equipped vehicles. If the Town Manager and the DPW Director have it in their contracts, OK, the extra income is reported to the IRS and it’s factored into the salary benefits. But other than that, no, the town does not provide vehicles for commuting.”
The committee agreed with Chairman Mike Seibert’s proposal that several comparative cost scenarios be created including the cost of the present policy; the cost of building a secure area to store the necessary vehicles; and the cost of reimbursing employees for using their own vehicles to conduct town business. “That’s the analysis we want to get to,” said Seibert.