Some NH Commissioners keep state cars, some lose them

By Grant Bosse

New Hampshire is somewhat inconsistent on which top officials drive government cars. Following a year long review on Non-Business Use of state vehicles, some Commissioners were allowed to keep taking their state vehicles home at night while other were asked to turn in their keys. Now lawmakers are looking at ways to improve management of the state’s motor vehicle fleet, and could ask state employees to reimburse taxpayers for every mile they drive off the clock.

According to a report presented to the Legislative Fiscal Committee this month by the Department of Administrative Services, 233 state vehicles accumulated more than 15% of their miles for Non-Business Use last year, totaling more than 1.5 million miles. Most of those miles were from employees in the Department of Transportation driving directly to and from job sites in the field. DOT persuaded state officials reviewing the use of state cars that letting these employees commute in state cars improved efficiency and was worth the cost in higher gas bills and automotive maintenance.

But not all those miles were from civil engineers and bridge inspectors. Several top bureaucrats also commute on the taxpayers’ dime, according to the DAS report. As we reported earlier this week, all three of New Hampshire’s Liquor Commissioners were asked to return their state vehicles after racking up significant miles outside of official business. But DRED Commissioner George Bald was allowed to keep his state car, which he drives to and from the office.

Health and Human Services Commissioner Nick Toumpas was the only employee at his Department to top 15% Non-Business Use in his vehicle. HHS has 105 cars in its fleet. According to DAS data, Toumpas drove his 2006 Chevrolet Impala 21,592 miles in Fiscal Year 2011, 10,108 of those for Non-Business Use. On August 11, 2011, Toumpas wrote a letter to DAS Commissioner Linda Hodgdon requesting a waiver to keep the car from being redistributed within the state’s fleet.

The Commissioner lives in Rye, NH. It would be inefficient to travel to Concord to obtain a state vehicle and then travel back towards Rye, for example, on state business. Further, paying the Commissioner personal mileage at the current IRS-allowed rate would be more expensive because the IRS-allowed rate ($0.555 per mile) is substantially higher than the state’s breakeven mileage ($0.33 per mile)

DAS estimates that paying Toumpas for his official travel would have cost $752 less last year than maintaining the state car. A five-member committee of state officials unanimously approved Toumpas’ request to keep his state car. But the panel rejected a similar plea from Corrections Commissioner William Wrenn.

Wrenn drove a 2007 Chevrolet Impala 26,662 miles last year, 13,162 of them off the clock. In an August 23, 2011 letter to Hodgdon, Corrections Director of Security and Training Christopher Kench requested a waiver for Wrenn.

This vehicle is used for commuting. However, much of the commuting involves directly reporting to required meetings and locations such as NH DOC prison facilities, court, Governor & Council Meetings, other State and local agencies and for emergency response capabilities as the Commissioner is on-call 24 hours a day.

The DAS report estimates that Wrenn’s use of the vehicle cost $1,314 more than reimbursement. Fish and Game Executive Director Glenn Normandeau was also asked to turn in the state-owned 2006 Chevrolet Impala that’s been driven by the last three Fish and Game heads. Normandeau put 22,405 miles on the car last year, 16,380 of which were Non-Business Use. He asked to keep the vehicle in an August 15, 2011 letter to Hodgdon.

This vehicle was purchased for, and is used as, the Executive Director’s vehicle. I am the third director to use this particular car (Director Perry & Acting Director Clark also used it) which currently has 114,000 miles. The vehicle is used only for official purposes and commuting by the Director. It carries state plates and seals. I personally care for this vehicle, including doing much of the mechanical work and maintenance in my own shop at home, recognizing it is unlikely in my tenure that I will ever see a replacement.

The Executive Director can be called or scheduled to be anywhere in the state at anytime including evenings and weekends. Having to come to Concord to pick up a vehicle in many instances would be a colossal waste of time – an hour out of my way if going north to Berlin or Lancaster. At 55.5 cents a mile the alternative of using a personal vehicle for business use will
not show any savings to Fish & Game.

DAS estimates that Normandeau’s personal miles cost $4,050 more than it would have to pay him for his official travel last year. Three of the five members of the committee considering vehicle waivers voted to deny Normandeau’s request, and the car was redistributed within the fleet.

Department of Safety Commissioner John Barthelmes got to keep his car after driving 2,217 of his 7050 miles last year for Non-Business Use. DAS estimates that allowing Barthelmes to take the car home saved the state $356 compared to reimbursing him for his on the job driving.

Legislative officials tracking state vehicle use praise the data, and Hodgdon’s efforts to compile and distribute it. Fiscal Committee Chairman Ken Weyler (R-Kingston) has been a long-time proponent of cracking down on fleet abuse. He singled out Hodgdon for praise.

“I’m very pleased. They’ve done a great job,” Weyler said.

Hodgdon thinks there is room for improvement in the system.

“I’m trying to get the right people in state vehicles,” Hodgdon tells New Hampshire Watchdog. “We should be paying mileage at $.55 per mile, but these cars are not for personal use.”

Hodgdon asked the Fiscal Committee to raise the reporting threshold for Non-Business Use from 15% to 20%. The higher trigger would have removed 43 of the 233 vehicles in the report, accounting for about 10% of the 1.5 million Non-Business Miles driven by state employees last year.

Senate President Peter Bragdon (R-Milford) was lead sponsor of SB 402, which directed Hodgdon to track state vehicle use. He’s pleased that this year’s report provides a baseline for how the state manages its fleet.

“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. “I want to let the system run a little bit and then see as we go along.”

Lawmakers are already seeking reforms, including a proposal to have state employees reimburse the state for any miles they drive outside of their official duties. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Morse (R-Salem) has introduced SB 314, which would require employees to reimburse the Highway Fund $.55 cent per mile including but not limited to their commute. Such a system would have generated $827,000 last year. Weyler is a co-sponsor, and believes that asking state employees to pay back the state would decrease the number of nights they take home state cars. SB 314 will be referred to the Senate Finance Committee when the Legislature comes back into session in January.

Health and Human Services State Vehicles

Corrections State Vehicle Requests

Fish and Game State Vehicles