Are some government take-home vehicles a necessity?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 6, 2009

More than 100 public-owned vehicles go home with city, county and parish employees around the Miss-Lou each night.

The cars are assigned to employees for a variety of reasons — a job perk, to respond to after-hour calls or to run business errands.

But in the midst of an economic downturn and tight budgets, some elected officials are beginning to ask questions.

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Natchez Alderman James “Ricky” Gray spearheaded questioning on who takes home cars and why last week during budget interviews with department heads.

Click here for a pdf of a list of area government take-home vehicles.

“I always ask about take- home vehicles,” Gray said. “If you’re working for the City of Natchez and you’re on call, you should have a vehicle. But if you’re not on call and you’re working for the City of Natchez, the City of Natchez shouldn’t provide you with a vehicle back and forth to work.”

While some City of Natchez departments have zero take home cars — Tourism, Planning and Zoning and the Natchez Senior Multipurpose Center — others have as many as 13.

The Natchez Police Department has 13 cars assigned to Chief Mike Mullins, six investigators, two commanders, two K-9 patrol officers, a school officer and a metro narcotics officer for after-hour calls. The NPD has 37 patrol cars total, but that number will drop to 32 when five new cars replace worn models and several five others are retired, Mullins said.

The Natchez Fire Department has cars assigned to Chief Oliver Stewart, Fire Marshal Aaron Wesley and Training Officer Darryl Smith for after-hour calls.

The Recreation Department has three cars assigned to Director Ralph Tedder, Assistant Director Salina Edwards and Park Operations Director Wilbert Whittley. Five maintenance trucks return to Duncan Park at day’s end, Tedder said.

Tedder said Edwards handles after-hour calls at the Duncan Park Golf Course. Golf clerks also use Edwards’ car during the day.

“The golf clerks use the (Dodge Caravan) to take golf and tennis bank deposits as well as to Kmart, Lehmann Cash and Carry, hardware stores and other stores to pick up supplies and food items for resale during the week,” Tedder said. “This may give the appearance to the public that personal shopping is taking place.”

Whittley is responsible for handling park and ball field maintenance problems after hours, Tedder said.

The Public Works Department has four cars assigned to Director Eric Smith and staff members Robert Sylvester, Joe Ainsworth and Keith Simmons.

“Actually, I’m a department head and it was given to me at hire,” Smith said of his car.

Sylvester, Ainsworth and Simmons use their cars for travel to the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility to pick up inmate workers.

“It’s more economical for them to take their vehicle home than to come to Public Works and pick it up each morning,” Smith said. “They can leave straight out from the house.”

Smith said Simmons’ car is the funded by Mississippi Department of Transportation, not the city.

The Traffic Department has two cars assigned to Director Rick Freeman and staffer Chris Norton for after-hours calls. The department has four cars total, including a bucket van and a truck used for sign maintenance. Both are parked downtown after hours.

The Inspections Department has four cars assigned to Director Paul Dawes, Electrical Inspector Jerry Rouse, Mechanical Inspector Forrest Flinn and Plumbing Inspector Kenneth Edwards, whose car is funded by Natchez Water Works.

“We have them because we often get called out on weekends to do inspections,” Dawes said.

Finally, Mayor Jack Middleton is assigned a car, which he said parks at his house on weekends.

“If it’s city business, I’m in the car,” Middleton said at the Mississippi Blues Trail marker unveiling at Jack Waite Park on Friday. “If you look over where I’m parked, you’ll see I drove my truck over here.”

Adams County vehicles

Each evening, approximately 50 Adams County employees leave work with take-home vehicles.

The majority of those employees work for the Adams County Sheriff’s Office.

Adams County Sheriff Angie Brown said the 37 ACSO employees with take home vehicles must have immediate access to their vehicles for emergency situations.

“If there’s an emergency anywhere in the county and we need them on scene, we don’t want to wait 30 minutes for them to drive to the station, pick up a car and get to where we need them.” Brown said. “In an emergency situation, we have to have access to response vehicles.”

But two of the ACSO’s vehicles are not used for emergency situations.

Two vans belonging to the ACSO are used for prisoner transport for the county work crew and the drivers of that van must travel back and froth between Adams, Franklin and Wilkinson counties several times a day.

Brown said since the drivers begin their trips early in the morning, it’s easier for them to have full access to the vans.

Additionally, Brown said limited parking downtown does not allow the necessary space to park all of the ACSO’s vehicles overnight.

“We just don’t have the room out here,” she said.

Brown also said having ACSO vehicles parked in neighborhoods across the county brings security to those neighborhoods.

And county employees, with the exception of Adams County Tax Assessor Reynolds Atkins, that have take home vehicles are always on call.

Atkins said while he travels to and from work in his 2000 Chevrolet Blazer he feels more comfortable leaving the vehicle parked at his house overnight, rather than downtown, because the vehicle contains expensive equipment, which could be stolen.

“There’s more than $2,000 worth of GPS equipment in that vehicle, and I think it’s more secure in my driveway, not downtown,” Atkins said.

Adams County Supervisor Darryl Grennell said Atkins requested the vehicle several years ago from the county because he often has to travel unpaved or damaged county roads for property appraisals and was concerned about the damage being done to his personal vehicle.

Adams County Coroner James Lee said the 2002 Dodge Ram van he drives is a necessity for his work.

“Not having that vehicle would be like a paramedic not having an ambulance,” Lee said. “It’s an emergency response vehicle that I need for my job. It’s not for personal business.”

On the Adams County Road Crew seven Ford pick-up trucks go home each night to provide fast response times in the event roads need to be cleared.

“When we have a blocked road, we need the road crew to be able to respond as fast as possible,” Grennell said. “We don’t need them running to a barn to pick up a truck then clearing the road.”

Road crew secretary Sylvia Bunch said in the past two months on call crewmen responded to almost 40 calls between 5 p.m. and 7 a.m. that dealt with road blockages.

Road Manager Clarence “Curlee” Jones said the vehicles are a vital part of the road crew’s ability to keep the county’s roads clear.

“We need them to do our work,” Jones said. “We rely on those trucks.”

Also relying on his vehicle at all hours of the day and night is Adams County Civil Defense Director Stan Owens.

“If I need to be at an emergency anywhere in the county it doesn’t make any sense for me to not have my vehicle close by,” Owens said.

The county’s maintenance crew, comprised of Allen Jones and Johnny Williams, both have take home vehicles, but since Allen’s county-owned vehicle is currently not running, he is using his personal vehicle.

Adams County Supervisor Mike Lazarus said both men should have county vehicles since they’re on call and need their vehicles to respond to the county’s needs at any time.

“Places like the juvenile center and the jail are in constant need of maintained, and they need to be able to get their with all of their equipment as quickly as possible,” Lazarus said.

Louisiana vehicles

In Vidalia, all department heads have the option to take home a vehicle, but Mayor Hyram Copeland said Utilities Superintendent Mark Morace has chosen not to.

Instead, Assistant Superintendent Richard Jones, whose area of expertise is in electrical work takes a vehicle home.

The decision to give Jones a vehicle followed in the wake of a hurricane, when he was constantly traveling back from home to work.

Riverfront Administrator H.L. Irvin has a car because of late-night events or meetings with prospects at the convention center, Copeland said.

All Vidalia police officers have take-home vehicles because they are on-call every minute of every day, Police Chief Ronnie G. “Tapper” Hendricks said.

“It wouldn’t make any sense if they were called on an emergency to have to come to the police station and check out a vehicle,” he said.

The city does what it can to ensure that city vehicles aren’t used for personal use, Copeland said.

“When I do take my car home, I park it in my driveway,” he said. “My wife doesn’t even ride in (city) cars.”

In Ferriday, Water Supervisor Gregory Griggs uses his own truck but is reimbursed for on-the-job gas usage, Mayor Glen McGlothin said.

That’s because the town truck he used burned out its motor, and the water department needed the other truck, McGlothin said.

Police officers have to park their cars at the station when they sign out for the day.

“We don’t want to wear the cars out,” McGlothin said. “We don’t have that many good cars running now.”