Some Anchorage city employees who were given take-home vehicles were never called out to use them for official purposes for two years, raising questions about whether city resources were being used wisely, a recent internal audit report found.
Three city employees who lived in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were also assigned take-home vehicles without a letter of justification from the city manager, in a break with policy, the audit said. The report also said city policies should clarify whether take-home vehicles can be used for personal errands, like picking up a child from day care.
Before this year, internal auditors had never examined the city's take-home vehicle program. The goal of the audit was to find out exactly how many existed in the city and evaluate how the program was working, said Michael Chadwick, the director of the internal audit department. The audit, released in early July, found no evidence of wrongdoing but concluded more oversight, record-keeping and policies were necessary.
Almost all of the vehicles are assigned to utility workers and members of the street maintenance department. The Anchorage Police Department and the Anchorage Fire Department are exempt from the policy.
The chair of the Anchorage Assembly audit committee, Suzanne LaFrance, set up a meeting next week to discuss the audit, saying she had some questions.
City manager Bill Falsey said the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz was open to "reinvestigating" aspects of the take-home vehicle program and tightening up current policies.
Falsey said take-home vehicles are generally more efficient when it comes to workers who may need to respond to emergencies in the city's electric, water or road systems.
"Some of these guys have specialized vehicles, so it may be that they are very rarely called out," Falsey said. "But the one time they do get called out, it's really important they have all their tools on their rig to go directly where they need to go."
Anchorage's spread-out geography is also a factor, Falsey said. It can be more efficient for a city worker to start their job on the way in from home, like during a snowstorm, he said.
Falsey couldn't immediately estimate the program's total cost. He said it's typically a "marginal change" between employees taking a vehicle home and driving it all day at work. Meanwhile, at least one utility believes auditors may have missed some call-outs by looking only at how time was recorded for payroll purposes, Falsey added.
But auditors said the program, which hasn't been reviewed since the mid-1990s, generally needs sharper internal controls.
About 47 take-home vehicles were assigned in 2016 and 2017, according to Falsey and the audit report by senior city auditor Dechen Dechen. Some workers had rotating on-call duties, Dechen wrote in the report.
During the audit period of January to April 2018, there was no centralized system for tracking the vehicle assignments, according to Dechen's report. Monthly usage reports weren't always submitted to the city payroll department. The absence of such records may mean city payroll officers are not aware of all the city employees who should be taxed for the use of the vehicle, Dechen wrote in the report. She said it also wasn't clear how payroll officers would be notified about new take-home vehicles.
Nine AWWU employees and one ML&P employee were approved for take-home vehicles but hadn't received the proper authorization, Dechen wrote in the audit.
Meanwhile, some had been assigned vehicles that were rarely, if ever, called out to use them.
At ML&P, for example, the audit found about 25 employees were assigned a take-home vehicle in 2016 and 2017. Of those, nine employees were never called out to use the cars, and about five were called out only once or twice, Dechen wrote in the audit.
"As a result, (city) resources may have been inefficiently used and the Municipality may be exposed to unnecessary liability," Dechen wrote in the audit.
Falsey said he's investigating whether all of the take-home vehicles are in fact necessary.
But he said taking a take-home vehicle out of circulation doesn't mean the vehicle leaves the city fleet. The switch would just mean the employee drives the vehicle from the office instead of home, he said.
Even so, auditors found the city's current policy is vague when it comes to what's allowed in the after-hours use of a take-home vehicle. There's no explicit direction, for example, on whether employees can use the vehicles to pick up children from day care or run personal errands, Dechen wrote in the report.
Falsey said the administration will be clarifying the policy along those lines. The city doesn't want employees using take-home vehicles for weekend Costco shopping trips, Falsey said. But he said there may be instances where an employee is supposed to be close to their specialized work vehicle and needs to pick up something on the way home.
Anchorage Assembly members plan to question members of the administration about the audit at a committee meeting next week. LaFrance, the chair of the Assembly's audit committee, said she wanted to know how three AWWU employees who lived in Mat-Su ended up with a take-home vehicle without a formal letter justifying it.
In that case, Falsey said, the AWWU employees were leaving the cars within city boundaries on the way to commuting from the Valley. He said the necessary letters were being provided, and the employees had internal approval for the vehicles but had not gained it from the city manager's office.