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L.A. controller questions expense, use of city's 'take-home' cars

An audit finds that the fleet vehicles cost tens of millions of dollars and that their use is not always justified and is poorly monitored. Lax oversight of gasoline credit cards is also cited.

January 23, 2009|Maeve Reston

Driving a company car home each night with free gas and maintenance has long been a cushy perk for hundreds of Los Angeles employees. But in these difficult economic times, when the city faces a $433-million deficit, some officials question whether the expense -- in the tens of millions of dollars -- is justifiable.

In two audits released Thursday, Los Angeles City Controller Laura N. Chick criticized the sometimes questionable use of vehicles in the fleet of more than 1,100 "take-home" cars and lax oversight of city-issued gasoline credit cards. The vehicles, purchased at a cost of $27 million to the taxpayers, are assigned to hundreds of police and fire officials, elected city officials, their staffs and city department heads.

Auditors for the controller also determined that a portion of the more than 2,000 other cars assigned to the city's departments, which were purchased for $50 million, as well as some of the cars that can be checked out at City Hall, are not used regularly and that their use is poorly monitored.

In response to the audits, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent a memo to all city departments late Thursday ordering termination of gasoline credit cards that can be used at non-city pumps. He also ordered a freeze on the issuance of most take-home cars as well as any new fleet purchases except for certain emergency, construction and trash vehicles.

The city spends $3 million a year on take-home vehicles for elected officials and their staff, and $7 million on so-called home-garaged cars for police and fire employees. But auditors found there was no evidence of consistent evaluations "to ensure each home-garaged vehicle is justified, warranted and based on the city's business needs."

In fact, more than two years after Villaraigosa voiced concern about the cost of the hundreds of police cars that officers are taking home each night, the controller's office learned that the number of take-home cars assigned to Los Angeles Police Department officers shot up by 40% from 2003 to 2008.

Auditors found more than 120 members of the police command staff are automatically assigned cars to take home. Some 650 additional vehicles, most unmarked sedans, are assigned to lieutenants and lower-ranking police officials who, in theory, get at least 10 emergency calls a year.

Although the city's police and fire departments have said the cars are assigned to help officers respond more quickly to emergency calls, auditors found "many employees rarely get call-outs and that they primarily use their vehicles to commute to and from work," one audit states.

More than a third of the lower-ranking police officials surveyed by auditors who take cars home (generally detectives or officers who must respond to emergencies) also live outside Los Angeles County, leading the controller's office to note that it was "questionable whether employees residing 50 to 90 miles away from the city can respond to an emergency call within the city limits in a timely manner."

Bratton defended his officers' use of take-home vehicles Thursday, noting that he had reduced the fleet by 5% at the beginning of the fiscal year and by 100 additional cars recently.

The controller's audits also focused on the city's 215-vehicle executive fleet -- cars assigned to the city's 18 elected officials, more than 120 of their staff members, and city department heads at a cost of about $6,100 per car annually. Auditors found that there were nearly 50 reserve cars within that fleet that are used only as loaner cars.

Chick's audits also highlight the fact that there are no clear limits on the price of the take-home cars purchased for elected officials and city general managers, which have ranged as high as $40,707. In 2003, City Council members eliminated the self-imposed $25,000 price cap on cars for their fleet and decided the cars should be eligible for replacement within three years. That has meant that the average price of executive fleet vehicles has increased from $20,923 in 2003 to $30,327 in the last fiscal year, according to the audits.

The most recent purchases were three hybrid Toyota Highlanders bought for more than $40,000 each, according to city auditors.

Each council office is assigned as many as eight cars. The mayor's office, which reduced the size of its fleet several years ago as a cost-cutting measure, has 13 cars, not including vehicles in Villaraigosa's security detail. The city attorney's office has 10 cars, while the controller has one, which she drives.

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maeve.reston@latimes.com

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