A couple weeks ago, after Creative Loafing discovered that the supposedly cash-strapped Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system had purchased a fleet of brand new Jeep Cherokees at $21,384 each for use in "inclement weather," we called Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James, the commission's fiscal shark, for comment.
He suggested the county's fleet should be used for comparison, since county employees made heavy use of low-end vehicles, like Chevy Cavaliers. James was right. The county does make heavy use of Cavaliers. But since 1996, the county has also developed a taste for fleets of brand new Chevy Blazers, which it has purchased on an annual basis at an average cost of around $21,000 per vehicle.
The 52 Blazers the county has purchased since 1996 at a cost of over $1 million -- all of which were purchased new -- have been assigned to drivers in nine county departments including Area Mental Health, Youth and Family Services, the Department of Social Services, Building Standards, Fleet Management, Environmental Services and Environmental Protection.
According to county policy, county vehicles can be used by county employees if a specially equipped vehicle is needed to perform their job, if it reduces legal liability of the employee performing a county function, if a vehicle provides "greater security or access" because it identifies the employee as an agent of the county or if it lowers county expenditures for transportation. County employees are allowed to take them home if it removes a vehicle from a county parking lot where it may be a target of overnight theft or vandalism or increases employee productivity by eliminating the need for a return to drop off the vehicle at a county lot on the way home. Vehicles may also be assigned to those who are on on-call status and those participating in the county's ridesharing carpool program, which allows county vehicles to be used for carpooling if three or more county employees regularly participate.
Perhaps the most luxurious of the vehicles in the county fleet is the $39,262 2003 Chevy Tahoe driven by Sheriff Jim Pendergraph. Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Assistant Chip Bailey said the money that paid for the Tahoe came out of the fee citizens pay when they purchase concealed gun permits from the Sheriff's Office and from funds generated by the sale of seized assets.
County Spokesperson Daniel Diehl said that the county purchases new vehicles because maintaining older ones costs more.
"You also get a warranty with new cars, they are more fuel efficient, which saves on operating expenses," said Diehl. "New cars are also more environmentally sound, which helps us maintain a healthy environment."
Like the school system, Diehl says the county needs the Blazers -- which cost more than some taxpayers make in a year -- because the county's programs and services operate throughout Mecklenburg County and there are still many areas that are unpaved and tough to access. This is especially true for Park and Recreation, Code Enforcement and Environmental Protection departments, Diehl says.
"As for Area Mental Health or DSS, they often serve clients who live in areas that are tough to access and the 4-wheel drive vehicles are part of "readiness programs' that allow us to get to someone who needs help," said Diehl.
James was surprised that the county has so many Blazers and says the vehicles go beyond the bounds of basic transportation. He plans to scrutinize the county's car purchases more closely in the future.
"I am equally as opposed to the county buying SUVs as I am to the school board buying them," said James. "I think there's a better way to spend taxpayer dollars. The only folks I could see needing them are those in Parks and Recreation for hauling stuff around. Even then I would see small pick-up trucks being a solution because they're much less expensive than an SUV. Government ought not to be buying SUVs and excessively fancy equipment that takes tax dollars away from their primary mission. It's a waste of taxpayer dollars whether it's a Jeep Grand Cherokee at CMS or a Chevy Blazer at Area Mental Health."
County Commissioner Parks Helms says he wasn't aware of the models and makes of the cars the county purchases, either. Helms says that such purchases will be more closely scrutinized in the future by commissioners starting on September 16, when a new budget process will require county departments to justify all their spending, rather than just new spending.
"We'll have to determine if there is some reason we are spending more than we should on these vehicles," said Helms. "They will have to make the case for buying anything other than adequate transportation."