- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

Americans love their cars, and so apparently does their Uncle Sam, who’s got 642,233 of them.

Operating those vehicles - maintenance, leases and fuel - cost taxpayers $3.4 billion last year, according General Services Administration data obtained and analyzed by the Associated Press.

While Cabinet and other officials say they need the vehicles to do their jobs, watchdogs say mismanagement of the government’s fleet is costing millions of dollars a year in wasteful spending.

For example:

cAt the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), fuel consumption and inventory are down, yet overall costs have increased significantly. Officials there can’t figure out why.

cThe Interior Department was told by its own watchdog that it should cut its inventory, but it added hundreds of vehicles.

cThe Veterans Affairs Department has some cars that are barely driven. One just disappeared.

Add to that the cost of drivers, a perk given to high-level government officials.

Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters has two drivers. Their salaries totaled more than $128,000 last year.

The driver for Health and Human Services Secretary (HHS) Michael O. Leavitt is paid about $90,000 a year. That’s more than double the average salary of an office manager or accountant, and about $35,000 more than a registered nurse earns, according to a salary calculator provided by CareerBuilder.com.

The government owns or leases sedans, sport utility vehicles, trucks, limousines and ambulances for more than three dozen agencies, the U.S. military and the Postal Service. Are they all really necessary?

“This is one bleeding part of a budget, and not just in one department, but in a lot of departments,” said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, a longtime foe of what he considers wasteful federal spending. “When you have something bleeding like this, there can be a lot of money saved.”

Saving taxpayer dollars should be a priority, said Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste.

“From a management standpoint, this is something that can easily be handled,” said Tom Schatz, president of the group. “It’s critical use or necessary use versus ‘well, we’ve got the money, let’s go out and buy some more cars.’ ”

HUD concedes problems with its fleet of about 450 vehicles.

According to an AP analysis, fleet costs at HUD have soared nearly 70 percent since 2004, to more than $2.1 million last year. But during the same period, the agency trimmed its fleet and overall fuel consumption. While gas prices have increased since 2004, the period AP analyzed came well before today’s record-high prices.

“Where that spike in overall costs came from, I have no idea,” said Bradley Jewitt, director of HUD’s facilities management division. Agency spokesman Jerry Brown added, “We can’t explain it.”

Mr. Jewitt, who came to HUD late last year, promised more accountability and oversight. The agency has begun a thorough review of its vehicles, how they are being used and whether each is justified.

HUD has cars for employees who conduct fair-housing and mortgage-fraud investigations and housing inspections across the country. At the Interior Department, cars and trucks are used by workers who help manage about 500 million acres of public land. The Agriculture Department has tens of thousands of vehicles for conservationists, scientists, farm-loan specialists and the Forest Service.

Federal agencies also have dedicated cars and drivers for senior officials.

In addition to the salaries for the two drivers for Mrs. Peters, her car, fuel and maintenance cost $11,500 last year. Most agency chiefs have one driver.

The department said Mrs. Peters needs two because the “cost of paying one driver overtime to cover both weekday shifts and weekends would be prohibitive.” A spokesman said a driver has to be on duty or available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for Mrs. Peters.

The VA has five sedans assigned to Secretary James B. Peake, the deputy secretary and the three top officials for the health office, benefits office and national cemetery administration. Total cost for the five cars and drivers: $353,470 a year.

Salaries for government drivers ranged from $46,000 for the driver for Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairwoman Naomi Earp to about $90,000 for Mr. Leavitt’s driver at HHS.

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