- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2000

The District of Columbia's collection of expensive but seldom-used vehicles has grown significantly despite Mayor Anthony A. Williams' promise to manage the fleet better, city documents show.

Since Mr. Williams took office in January 1999, city officials have bought 74 sport utility vehicles at a cost of more than $20,000 each, increasing the District's tally of gas-guzzling SUVs to 308.

Yet many of the SUVs merely sit in lots most days like the new red Ford Explorer, which still has its sticker lying in its cargo area and remains unmoved in the parking space for the director of the Child and Family Therapy Center.

And at least 24 of the city's SUVs remained parked during last winter's heaviest snowstorms, as The Washington Times first reported in January.

What's more, the city has paid more for its cars than necessary and has provided cars with luxury options for some senior officials.

For instance, when the city bought five Dodge Stratus four-door sedans, it paid $18,155 for each one $2,000 over the base model's retail price and $1,600 more than the D.C. Housing Authority paid for its comparably equipped Ford Taurus.

The situation has gotten the attention of the D.C. Council, which will hold a public hearing today to consider legislation that would consolidate management of the city's fleet and prevent the city from paying at or above sticker price for vehicles.

"The whole reason I want these functions consolidated [is] to be more efficient and get more for less … instead of what appears to be what is today's practice of getting less for more," said council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, who introduced the bill.

Mrs. Schwartz has said the city's purchase of vehicles is haphazard and that centralizing inventory and maintenance of vehicles will reduce waste.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, said through a spokesman that he will monitor Mrs. Schwartz's legislation, which he believes could reduce costs.

"Some of the spending appears to be questionable in terms of getting the most bang for your bucks," Mr. Davis said, adding that the fleet's management was distressing and "would be frustrating to D.C. taxpayers."

Norman S. Dong, deputy mayor for operations, said the city has begun trying to get a handle on buying and maintaining its vehicle in the past year, noting a May 11 decision by Mr. Williams.

The decision requires the Department of Public Works (DPW) to oversee all city vehicle purchases, except those for public schools and the police and fire departments.

Mr. Dong said each city department is being evaluated to determine the use of each of its vehicles.

He said the city will begin on June 24 the first of four "roundups," in which all city vehicles will be inspected and those that are not used properly will be placed into a pool of vehicles. A portion of the fleet will be inspected by DPW employees each week until all are inspected.

"In past years, the District government has not been very diligent in its usage and purchase of vehicles," Mr. Dong said, adding that roundups will help city officials find out the number and condition of the cars.

"Our inventory has been less than 100 percent reliable in the past," he said.

Ronald S. Flowers, DPW's administrator of fleet services, said he will begin purchasing vehicles based on need and will not allow luxury options. He said SUVs will not be ordered unless the user can justify a need for the vehicles.

He said he has a directive from and the support of the mayor to clean up the vehicle fleet. "For a change, the captain has the support of the generals," Mr. Flowers said. "That's what makes the difference."

Vehicles such as those used by DPW Director Vanessa Dale Burns and Natwar M. Gandhi, acting chief financial officer, have expensive add-ons.

Miss Burns' 1999 Ford Explorer comes complete with chrome wheels, raised white letter tires, running boards and a rear-window wiper. A leased black 1998 Ford Taurus that is assigned to the Office of Tax and Revenue and used by Mr. Gandhi has a leather interior and a high-performance engine.

The city's number of SUVs, a status vehicle used more often by managers than workers, increased after the mayor adopted a $40,000 Ford Expedition as the limousine he uses to travel around the city.

The city also purchased many two-wheel-drive SUVs, which are of little use in snow and cost $8,000 more than a comparably equipped pickup trucks like the Ford Ranger and the Chevrolet S-10.

Linda Grant, spokeswoman for public works, said she did not know how many two-wheel-drive SUVs were purchased or why.

The city was criticized for failing to get city streets cleared during the winter snowstorms even though it had bought four-wheel-drive SUVs to handle snow driving. Mr. Flowers said that, instead of purchasing SUVs, the city will begin buying heavy-duty pickup trucks that can be used to plow streets and pick up trash.

The Times has reviewed the city's fleet-inventory report and found no centralized management system and chaotic purchasing.

The costs for similar vehicles vary by thousands of dollar, and the city has purchased vehicles from almost every major brand, which makes it difficult to maintain parts and supplies.

Many of the new city vehicles are operated without government markings or identification numbers, making it is more difficult to determine if city employees abuse the use of the vehicles. Mr. Flowers said all vehicles will be marked with government identifications during the roundups.

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