NH DOT claims employees save money taking home state cars

By Grant Bosse

Of the 1.5 million miles that New Hampshire employees drove state cars for Non-Business Use last year, 1.1 million were in the Department of Transportation. The agency responsible for the Granite State’s roads and bridges has the largest number of vehicles in the state’s fleet, and by far the most of those cars and trucks outside of official business. But DOT officials insist that letting workers take state vehicles home at night can ultimately save taxpayers money.

DOT has 606 cars and trucks that fall under SB 402, a law passed last year to cut down on state vehicle expenses. Under the law, agencies must now track Non-Business Use of vehicles under 10,000 pounds, and turn in the keys to any vehicles with more than 15% Non-Business Use unless they can justify its continued use to a panel of state officials led by Department of Administrative Services Commissioner Linda Hodgdon. A recent DAS report found that 179 DOT vehicles tripped the 15% NBU threshold, along with 54 cars from across all other New Hampshire departments.

30% of DOT vehicles were used extensively outside of business travel, compared to just 4% for all other vehicles. Fish and Game and Health and Human Services each had only one car in the report despite each having over 100 vehicles in their departments. DAS calculates that the average state car costs $.33 per mile to operate, putting the total tab for employees driving their DOT vehicles to and from work at $384,000. But the same DAS estimates also take into account how much the state would have paid to reimburse employees for official travel if they had not had access to state cars. Those savings drop the total cost of Non-Business Use within DOT to just over $100,000 in Fiscal Year 2011.

Deputy Commissioner Mike Pillsbury says letting DOT employees take work vehicles home more than pays for itself. Pillsbury says that most DOT vehicles don’t just transport workers to and from work. They are needed on the job site because of the specialized equipment, signal lights, and communications gear they carry. If Civil Engineers, Bridge Construction Superintendents, and other key employees had to drive to Concord or nearby maintenance shed to pick up these vehicles, DOT would have to start paying them the minute they turned the key in the ignition.

“We’d rather have them on the job site at 7:30 in the morning than driving to Concord to pick up the truck, being on the clock for the whole ride, and starting construction that much later,” Pillsbury explains.

Pillsbury stresses that employees only take home DOT trucks when it is more cost-effective to home to their job, and often only during construction season. He says that no top officials drive state cars. But that wasn’t always the case. Former Commissioner George Campbell, who stepped down this fall, shows up on the DAS report.

Campbell drove a state-owned 2007 Chevrolet Malibu 23,549 miles last year, 14,618 miles for Non-Business Use. That means 62% of Campbell’s miles were off the clock. In an August 10, 2011 letter to Hodgdon’s committee, DOT Assistant Director of Operations William Janelle requested a waiver to keep Campbell’s car.

DOT headquarters are located in Concord, however often the commissioner is required to travel to any one of the six regional district offices or 102 maintenance patrol facilities, various cities or towns to address specific concerns, Governor & Council meetings, public hearings for design projects or ongoing construction projects. These meetings can often occur at the start or end of the day on weekends or during evening hours.

The Commissioner has 24/7 responsibility for all transportation operations. In the past major traffic incidents such as multiple car pileups, bridge collisions and winter storm events required the Commissioners presence. In addition when natural disasters occur the Commissioner is ultimately responsible for transportation activities ESF 1 & ESF 3 at the Emergency Operations Center. This typically involves both monitoring the condition of transportation infrastructure in the field and briefing the Governor and local communities regarding the status of the ongoing response.

The Executive Council confirmed Christopher Clement to take over DOT on September 14th. Pillsbury says neither Clement nor his top assistants drive state-owned vehicles. According to Pillsbury, the only top DOT officials with state cars are the chief Highway Engineer and Bridge Engineer, who are on call to respond to accidents 24 hours a day.

Pillsbury adds that taking home specialized cars and trucks isn’t much benefit for DOT employees, since they can’t use them anything other than getting to and from the job site. The state does end up picking up the costs of those employees commutes, since it pays for gasoline and maintenance for state vehicles, saving state workers from hefty gas prices.

Hodgdon and her colleagues approved 175 of the 179 waiver requests from DOT, but also directed the Department to cut its vehicle fleet by at least 10 cars. Hodgdon says it may often be cost-effective to let transportation workers take their state vehicles home, DOT needs to improve how it tracks and manages its fleet.

“They can do better,” Hodgdon added.

Over a third of all miles driven by the 179 DOT vehicles in the report were for Non-Business Use, drawing the attention of Senate President Peter Bragdon, who sponsored SB 402 last session.

“We now have the information on the vehicles we did not have before and that provides more transparency. And now we know where the issues are,” Bragdon told the Union Leader in response to this Fleet Week series. “I want to let the system run a little bit and then see as we go along.”