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St. Joseph County leaders to keep closer eye on take-home vehicles

St. Joseph County commissioners will soon be keeping closer tabs on county employees’ take-home vehicles.

The commissioners’ meeting agenda this morning includes considering a proposal from Enterprise, the car rental company, to provide fleet management services to the county. The county also would lease passenger vehicles exclusively through Enterprise rather than buy or lease them from various vendors as it’s always done.

The county has about 150 passenger vehicles that it buys or leases for employee use. About 50 of those are take-home vehicles. Of those 50 vehicles, the prosecutor’s office has the most, with 18, followed by the Department of Infrastructure, Planning & Growth, which has 17. That department includes Public Works, Engineering and Area Plan.

County police are exempt.

County Commissioner Derek Dieter has long called for more scrutiny over the use of take-home vehicles. The leased Enterprise vehicles will have GPS trackers.

“We need to formulate, why are we giving somebody a take-home vehicle,” Dieter said. “Because there’s no doubt that a majority of the miles are being used for their personal business, and if that’s the case, why are we letting somebody do that? If you want to come to work and you have a car that’s parked there for you to use when you’re working, fine. But my personal opinion, I don’t think we need to give Derek or Jeff a car because of whatever position they’re in.”

Dieter said he understands that some county employees, such as the coroner, are on call and must report directly to incidents from their home during off hours. But he said other departments with take-home vehicles, like the health department, don’t have staff on call.

Dieter says that once the program starts generating data on county vehicle use, county leaders will no longer have to take department heads’ word on how vehicles are being used. Commissioners and council members will have that data in front of them at annual budget time.

For example, Dieter notes that Prosecutor Ken Cotter’s office no longer runs the Metro Homicide unit, now that area police departments investigate their own homicides. So Dieter says it makes sense to ask whether the prosecutor still needs as many take-home vehicles.

A spokeswoman for Cotter said that he was in court Monday and had not responded to WVPE News’ interview request for this story.

Dieter said he started looking into the matter when he learned that the county’s Emergency Management Agency had three take-home vehicles. The EMA helps the community prepare for and respond to disasters. Dieter said the vehicles showed higher mileage than seemed necessary.

“They’re not going to tornadoes,” Dieter said. “They have to make sure the sirens work but they’re not, you know, going to disasters and so on and so forth. That started the whole process of us looking into the entire fleet and how we do business.”

County EMA Director Al Kirsits said he agrees that more accountability is needed when it comes to county vehicles, and he’s glad Dieter is leading this effort. Kirsits said the bulk of the miles on the department’s two 2018 Chevy Silverado pick-ups were driven before he and Jim Lopez, both retired South Bend firefighters, hired on with the county EMA last summer. They’re budgeted for new trucks when their leases expire in February.

Kirsits said he and Lopez take the trucks home at night but they don’t use them for personal matters. He thinks they should remain take-home vehicles for emergency response.

Kirsits recalled a May 15 incident where a mechanical issue forced a Dallas-bound flight to turn around after takeoff and burn fuel for a while before emergency landing back at South Bend International Airport.

“I got a call on that and I skedaddled out there to the airport,” Kirsits said. “On a standby there. And if they were going to need anything, need any supplies, set up an emergency operations center at their command post out at the airport.”

The commissioners recently appointed Ryan Rodts as the county’s fleet director, a new position they created to oversee the program and work with the fleet management vendor. Rodts had worked in the county’s Infrastructure, Planning & Growth department for six years.

Rodts projects the new program’s focus on leasing all vehicles, instead of just some, will save the county about $1 million over 10 years. Those savings would come through lower repair costs because vehicles would be newer, and more fuel efficiency because newer vehicles tend to get better gas mileage.

“Over the course of the next 10 years, not only will we have modernized our fleet,” Rodts said, “but we should see reduced costs in what it takes to maintain that fleet.”

Parrott, a longtime public radio fan, comes to WVPE with about 25 years of journalism experience at newspapers in Indiana and Michigan, including 13 years at The South Bend Tribune. He and Kristi live in Granger and have two children currently attending Indiana University in Bloomington. In his free time he enjoys fixing up their home, following his favorite college and professional sports teams, and watching TV (yes that's an acceptable hobby).