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MANAGEMENT OF STATE CARS DEFENDED

State bureaucrats say they know where every state vehicle is and are managing the 5,000-unit fleets well, despite what legislative auditors report.

Last month, the staff of the legislative fiscal analyst released a report that detailed a number of problems in state fleet management - including discrepancies in the number of state vehicles listed by departments and the main fleet agency, incomplete accounting of which employees are taking state cars home each night and incomplete IRS filings by state employee commuters.Republican and Democratic legislative leaders weren't pleased. House Budget Chairman Marty Stephens said the state had too many cars and it appeared that too many cars were going home each night with employee commuters.

Raylene Ireland, executive director of the Department of Administrative Services (which oversees fleet management), told leaders Tuesday that legislative auditors "didn't communicate well" in preparing their report. In short, they made some big mistakes, although those mistakes weren't auditors' fault, she said.

But Ireland at times Tuesday had a hard time reconciling her own figures, leaving some leaders frowning. For example, auditors said they found 737 cars going home each night with employees. But Ireland said through a mix-up, some commuter cars weren't found by the auditors because records of those cars were sitting in a still-incomplete computer accounting system. "Actually it is more like 950 cars going home," said Ireland.

Considering the state has around 16,500 employees, that's about one in 17 workers approved to take a vehicle home each night - a practice that could be costing taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ireland said her department will have a "complete, thorough" report to leaders by November and all questions will be answered. Frankly, warned Stephens, if Ireland and Gov. Mike Leavitt don't fix the problems, "the Legislature will do something about it."

Senate Budget Chairman LeRay McAllister said lawmakers may place more restrictions on who can take cars home, who can get unmarked cars or even reduce the number of vehicles the state owns and operates. Leaders will study privatizing state fleet operations, even though Ireland said a 1993 review showed the state is running its fleets 2 cents per mile cheaper than what a private company would charge.

Auditors said part of the problem is that while state bosses talk to each other about cars, Public Safety, the Department of Natural Resources, central fleet management, several universities and the Department of Transportation all have separate fleet operations.

While each entity on its own may know how many vehicles it has, there is no central computer accounting of total state vehicles - at least, the two public hearings have shown no accounting that appears to be accurate.

"Even in your presentation today," Stephens told Ireland, "there are numbers that differ up to 250 and 350 cars. I don't see how that can be," even considering the daily buying and selling of cars by state managers.

Of equal or greater concern is the number of cars going home each night with employees and how far those commuters are driving. Ireland agrees that state commuters are driving two times farther than the national average on commutes - "and that's not good. I'm very concerned about commuting. We are going to address (commuters) in a dramatic way in my (November recommendations)."