Taxpayers are footing the bill for maintenance, gas and insurance for 62 City of Nogales employees who are assigned a take-home vehicle, including 42 employees who live outside of city limits.
According to data provided by the city’s finance department, 52 employees in the police department, four in Public Works, four in the fire department and two in the city’s housing department have been provided a take-home vehicle.
Of those who live outside the city limits, Finance Director Sherry Schurhammer said, most live in Rio Rico, but some live as far as Tubac and even in neighboring Pima County.
However, a provision in the city’s current vehicle policy states that employees living more than 10 miles outside city limits shall not be assigned a take-home vehicle.
As of April, the city had 261 vehicles in its fleet, including trucks, SUVs, vans, emergency vehicles and street sweepers.
The city budgeted nearly $324,400 for repairs and maintenance, about $557,000 for fuel, oil and fluids, and a little more than $162,000 for vehicle insurance for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
It spent nearly $724,000 on fuel, maintenance and insurance, and that figure is expected to increase as the city finishes paying bills associated with FY 2015-16, Schurhammer said.
The department, however, does not have “readily available information about the cost per vehicle for fuel, maintenance and insurance that would allow you to see those costs attributable to the time the vehicle is used for work-related duties versus the time commuting to/from work,” Schurhammer added.
With the majority of those with a take-home vehicle living outside city limits, staff is now considering making changes to the vehicle policy to make it more cost effective.
The move comes shortly after the council adopted a fiscal year 2016-17 budget that addressed a projected revenue shortfall and at the same time that Mayor John Doyle moved to eliminate two top-level administrative positions, touting the move as a cost-saving measure.
A revised vehicle-use policy dated May 2013 states that city-owned vehicles “shall be used solely in the conduct of city business” and no vehicle, “except those authorized for twenty-four hour use,” shall be taken home at the end of the employee’s shift.
Twenty-four hour use vehicles, or take-home vehicles, “will only be considered for employees who require a vehicle for the ordinary and necessary discharge of their job function,” such as police officers. The vehicles assigned to the four employees in the fire department are all unmarked and not used for emergency response.
Criteria used to determine whether or not an employee is eligible to drive a take-home vehicle includes: being an on-call employee; needing to be available for emergencies; and having a city facility to park vehicles in a “safe and convenient location.”
The policy goes on to say that no employee who lives further than 10 miles from city limits will be eligible for or assigned a take-home vehicle. Those currently assigned a take-home vehicle that live more than 10 miles from city limits “may continue the use of said vehicle in accordance with and subject to any terms and conditions established by the city manager.”
Staff began studying the issue of take-home vehicles after the IRS conducted an audit of some Arizona counties to see whether or not they were taxing employees for what the IRS considers benefits, such as a company cell phone or take-home vehicle, according to two people at the city who referred confirmation of that fact to Carlos Rivera, the city manager. Rivera did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Currently, the city does not tax employees who are assigned a take-home vehicle, though Schurhammer said the IRS does not require that municipalities tax specialty vehicles, such as an animal control vehicle.
The city now has to determine whether or not emergency vehicles, such as those used by the police department, can be considered a specialty vehicle and whether or not it would tax employees who have take-home vehicles and live more than 10 miles outside of city limits.
City administration is now meeting with department heads who have one or more employees with a take-home vehicle to determine if there is a justification for why the employee needs a take-home vehicle assigned to them before making any changes to the vehicle policy.
The police department, which has the large majority of take-home vehicles assigned to its staff, has justified the practice in the past as a tool to ensure quicker responses to emergencies. Police Chief Derek Arnson declined to discuss the practice for this story.
This is not the first time the administration has tried to tackle the city’s vehicle policy.
In 2013, the council approved an amendment to the policy that addressed the use of electronic devices while driving a city vehicle.
Two years prior, former City Manager Shane Dille also issued new administrative orders reemphasizing that city vehicles are to be used only for work-related purposes, and that family members and commuting co-workers are not to be transported in city vehicles.
“Misuse of city vehicles will not be tolerated and will be disciplined accordingly,” Dille said at the time.
In 2009, the Nogales City Council voted to take away the keys to a $40,000 Chevrolet Tahoe from then-Mayor Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel after he reportedly logged more than 50,000 miles in 16 months on the SUV, which was purchased for the exclusive use of the the mayor and council. The SUV replaced a 1998 Ford Crown Victoria that had been used by four former mayors who among them racked up 58,000 miles in nearly 10 years.