Who’s watching Buffalo workers’ use of take-home vehicles?

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – Over a 10-day period in October, News 4 Investigates found a City of Buffalo Department of Public Works truck at a Military Road location in Buffalo parked for two, sometimes three hours at a time.

“I don’t prefer that to happen,” says Steve Stepniak, Buffalo’s DPW Commissioner.

But it did happen. And while the worker was off the city clock – and there on his own time – it begs the question: If city vehicles are only to be used for city business, what’s a city truck doing at this location?

RELATED | To watch Part II of our report, click here

“I’ll be honest with you I don’t prefer it,” adds Stepniak.

News 4 showed Stepniak video of the truck arriving and being parked at the location.

“Is that like right near his residence? Is he stopping on his way home? Does he live like a block from that location?” he asks. “Preferably I would have him take his vehicle home first and come there.”

News 4 showed the video to City Comptroller Mark Schroeder.

“The vehicles are to be used for city business,” Schroeder says.

In fact, Schroeder, the city’s fiscal watchdog, says his office collects vehicle usage forms monthly. Just above where employees sign the form it clearly states the vehicle is used “exclusively for city business” with the exception of “commuting back and forth to work.”

“When you have this form that an individual employee of the City of Buffalo signs and says he’s only using the vehicle for city business, it doesn’t appear to be so based on what I just watched,” Schroeder says.

Buffalo Common Council Member Richard Fontana says if an employee is not following policy the vehicle should be taken away.

“Quite frankly you know the rules going in. You ask, what can I use this vehicle for? So you can’t use it for anything else,” Fontana says.

The employee using the city truck seen in the video signed a vehicle usage form declaring that it was used exclusively for city business.

“It was an improper practice,” says Stepniak. “Not an abuse. But an improper practice that we corrected.”

The worker assigned to the truck owns the property on Military Road, records show. Stepniak says the worker told him it’s a warehouse where he stores stuff.

Stepniak says the employee also told him, “He was just stopping there because, again it’s a facility he owns where he stores his own stuff there. He was just stopping there on his way home and taking care of personal business there. But not using it for any other work purposes.”

Stepniak says corrective measures have been taken.

“We informed him what he should be doing and not doing with that vehicle,” says Stepniak. “Corrective measures have been taken, and we’re going along with that.”

So what are the rules? We asked the city to provide us with its take-home vehicle policy.

“Vehicles are only to be used for official city business… for commuting to and from employees’ work locations. Vehicles are not used for recreational or personal purposes…”

It took the city several months to produce that statement.

Questions about the use of city vehicles have come up many times over the years, and during previous administrations.

“I think the time is ripe to see where are we now with take-home vehicles as opposed to then,” says Fontana, who sponsored a resolution in 1999 questioning the use of city vehicles. The result was the council asking for am audit of the use of take-home vehicles and city emblems were added to all cars.

Council Member David Franczyk says it’s been a while since the council has been given a status report on city take-home vehicles.

When asked if he planned to do anything about it, Franczyk, the Fillmore District council member, says he plans “to ask about that. I’ll talk to our Commissioner of Administration and Finance and say who is the overall overseer which there doesn’t seem to be any at this point.”

News 4 has learned that some 80 cars are assigned to city employees, including 52 vehicles assigned to the police department, which includes cars that are unmarked and used undercover.

The cars are managed by each department commissioner to whom they are assigned. In addition to public works and police, city vehicles are assigned to primarily managers from fire, building inspections, water and parking enforcement. Most are supervisors who are expected to be on call.

The Department of Public Works, which Stepniak manages, has a dozen take-home vehicles assigned to managers. Stepniak is one of them.

Asked whether employees sign something saying, ‘I understand what the policy is’ and how that is communicated to them so they know everybody’s on the same page, Stepniak says, “Well, they actually sign the policy. They actually sign it. We keep records of that. We update that every year. We keep inventory on who takes those vehicles home.”

So what mechanisms are in place to keep track of what city employees are doing with take home vehicles?

News 4 asked Fontana whether there is a central point person dealing with vehicles?

“No there’s nobody specific for vehicles. We don’t have like a transportation person. It’s all done through the commissioners,” Fontana says.

Erie County, for example, has a Bureau of Fleet Services. There are approval forms and numerous sign-offs needed before an employee receives a take-home vehicle.

“The vehicles are really the property of the public,” says Peter Anderson, press secretary to the Erie County executive.

He adds that it’s something that is closely scrutinized.

“You don’t want to let the system be abused. We’re not in the position to just be giving out vehicles to anyone who might want to have a county vehicle to drive around in.”

The county’s policy states that they’re to be “used only for county business.”

Erie County has 39 take-home vehicles plus cars assigned to the district attorney’s and sheriff’s office. In county government, cars are assigned to officials at Erie Community College, Emergency Services, sewage management, health, public works, and parks. The district attorney and county clerk also have take-home cars.

One way to keep track of vehicles is by installing a Global Positioning System. And that’s exactly what’s happening with City of Buffalo DPW vehicles. Commissioner Stepniak told News 4 last month that the city was in the process of installing GPS units in all vehicles.

“At a moment’s notice I can bring up our entire fleet on the computer and I can see where people are going and what they’re doing,” Stepniak says. And, he adds, the data is kept forever so the city can do a look back if necessary.

Fontana does not think the city needs the added expense of a fleet bureau like the county, but he does think GPS is the way to go and should be installed in every vehicle.

“And if there is supervision with that GPS, the more the merrier,” Fontana says.

Franczyk agrees.

“It should be done in every city department that has a take home car either out of necessity or out of a union negotiated contract, and they should be all GPS. There’s no question,” Franczyk says.

Although Buffalo and Erie County have different ways of managing vehicle usage, both municipalities have clearly stated policies about employees’ taking them home after hours.

“We do take it very serious and taxpayer dollars very serious as well,” says Stepniak.

Adds Erie County’s Anderson, “They deserve to be treated with respect and minimize the use of it. It’s a public investment that’s not to be taken lightly.”

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