By Grant Bosse
Commissioner George Bald is satisfied that no one in his department is abusing the privilege of driving state-owned vehicles, even if he was a little sloppy in keeping track of his own mileage. The head of the Department of Resources and Economic Development defends his decision to let the General Manager of Cannon Mountain take home a “company car” every night, putting more than 18,000 personal miles on the vehicle in Fiscal Year 2011.
“There are a lot of requirements that people have to meet with different companies and travel the district. I don’t feel there is any waste going on with people in DRED using state vehicles,” Bald tells New Hampshire Watchdog. “And if they take them home, it is because it was going to be less expensive than for them to be driving to Concord to pick up the vehicle.”
DRED had eleven of its 168 state vehicles show up on a recent report detailing cars and trucks with more than 15% of their miles for Non-Business Use last year. A new state law, SB 402, requires that agencies track that mileage more carefully and redistribute vehicles above that threshold unless a they receive a waiver to let employees keep their state cars. Ten of those eleven vehicles received waivers, including Bald’s own car.
Bald drives a 2006 Chevrolet Impala LS, and last year drove it 25,980 miles, according to a report submitted by Administrative Services Commissioner Linda Hodgden to the Legislative Fiscal Committee earlier this month. Bald says he drives the car to and from work.
“I live in Somersworth, but I generally work out of the Concord office. I do take it home every night. Sometimes I’m going up to Colebrook or Berlin from here,” Bald explains. “I could have a meeting in Portsmouth in the morning, and Keene in the afternoon.”
State rules, and federal tax guidelines, treat a public employee’s commute as Non-Business Use. The distance between home and the office does not count as official travel. And while Bald submitted details mileage reports for ten of his department’s vehicles, he could not precisely account for his own mileage.
“I didn’t keep the records as well as other people have,” Bald readily admits. “Whenever I gas up, I note the mileage, but I wasn’t as good at keeping the mileage between various trips.”
Hodgden says that committee charged with considering vehicle waivers had to estimate how much of Bald’s mileage was taken up by Bald’s 40-mile commute.
“We did a low, medium and high version based on prior years and in all cases, it was better to have him drive a state vehicle than pay him $.55 to drive his own vehicle,” Hodgden concluded.
Bald argues that taking home state vehicles isn’t much of a perk, since most state employees don’t like leaving their personal vehicles in Concord, and they can’t use their state vehicles for anything once they pull into their driveway. State policies prohibit transporting family members or running errands in government cars.
CANNON CASE STUDY
The state car that has drawn the most attention following the publication of the DAS report is the 2010 Chevrolet Impala LS driven by Cannon Mountain General Manager John DeVivo. That car registered 18,842 miles of Non-Business Use in FY11, second most of any car in the state fleet. But it is also the only state car garaged outside of New Hampshire. DeVivo lives in Bethel, Maine, and Bald says he gave DeVivo permission to take the Chevy home every night.
“He’s on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In the winter he runs Cannon Mountain, but in the summer he runs all of Franconia Notch State Park,” Bald explains. “I felt it was important for him to have a vehicle because he wasn’t being compensated for being on call. He’s driving a billboard. There’s no doubt as to what it is. There’s no personal use of it.”
DeVivo’s out of state commute drew the ire of Josiah Bartlett Center President Charlie Arlinghaus, who highlighted the case in a Union Leader column previewing this Fleet Week series.
“I’m sorry he lives in Maine but why am I taxed so he can drive a state-owned Chevy Impala home every night instead of buying a car like the rest of us?” Arlinghaus asked.
Bald took issue with the idea that taxpayers are footing the bill, since Cannon Mountain’s operations are paid for entirely with user fees.
“There are no tax dollars that go into that vehicle. There are no General Fund dollars going into Cannon Mountain. Cannon Mountain is 100% supported by user fees,” Bald reiterated.
DAS estimates that the cost of maintaining DeVivo’s vehicle for 30.973 total miles is $3,488 more than it would be to simply reimburse DeVivo for the 12,131 miles in official travel he logged last year. Despite that additional expense, Bald made a case for letting DeVivo keep the car in his August 17, 2011 letter to Hodgden.
When John was hired in 2007 into the Unclassified Position as Mountain Manager and with the realization that the position serves at the pleasure of the Commissioner, it was agreed that John would be assigned the use of a state vehicle. This decision was based on the 24/7 nature of the job, the 15-18 hours of commuting time each week, the need to travel extensively in New Hampshire (and occasionally in western and southern Maine) beyond the commute, and the desire to put a Cannon logo in front of folks in lesser-marketed areas in Cannon country along the Route 2 corridor (Franconia, Twin Mountain, Jefferson, Gorham, and Shelburne) twice a day, on roughly 270 days a year. As with the electronic tethers (cell phone, mobile/global email, and laptop), the vehicle is a necessary tool for the job at hand, and John agreed to more than offset its use (financially) with an annual 4-1/2 month winter seasonal cottage rental at his own expense, to allow for even closer and more consistent contact with the organization.
As in the private sector, most state employees are responsible for getting themselves to and from work. And most employees who take home state cars do so in order to avoid having to drive to Concord or a nearly depot to pick up a state car for official travel in the morning. Such an arrangement saves the state money on each trip, even though it increases the amount of Non-Business Use on state vehicles. But Bald argues the Cannon Mountain GM should be allowed to take home a company car even if he isn’t traveling on state business the next day.
“It’s operated as a business would be operated, so that would certainly fit under the category of company car,” Bald says.
Bald says the decision to let DeVivo commute in a state vehicle has been well worth it.
“Four years in a row, we’ve had Cannon Mountain in the black. For his compensation, having a vehicle is a very small cost given the amount of work that he does and the responsibility he has,” Bald concludes.
Hodgden and the waiver committee agreed, voting 5-0 to let DeVivo keep driving the car. Overal, the panel allowed the continued use of 218 of the 233 cars and light trucks that crossed the 15% Non-Business Use threshold.