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Audit: Nassau County's oversight of 'take-home' vehicles still lax

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman releases findings of

Nassau County Comptroller Jack Schnirman releases findings of an audit on "take-home" vehicles on Thursday in Mineola.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau County has failed to monitor its “take-home” vehicle fleet, ensure drivers are properly licensed, and retrieve vehicles from departing workers in a timely manner, the county comptroller said Thursday.

The same issues regarding lax oversight of the take-home vehicle policy were raised three years ago in an audit that determined poor supervision had exposed the county to unnecessary expense and liability, Comptroller Jack Schnirman said.

“There’s some key questions that were raised back in 2015 that should have been addressed right away,” Schnirman said as he revealed the findings of the latest audit at a news conference in Mineola. “They relate to basic issues of accountability. It was distressing to learn that years later, when our audit team went back, they found little had changed.”

Schnirman’s audit updates the 2015 report by then-county Comptroller George Maragos, who was a Republican at the time. Schnirman, a Democrat, said he advised Democratic County Executive Laura Curran’s office of the latest findings and recommendations July 28 and steps are being taken to address the issues.

Maragos in 2015 noted 11 problems, finding numerous instances of questionable vehicle usage and departments failing to manage their vehicle stock properly.

Nassau only fixed two of the problems in its oversight of 363 take-home cars assigned to workers — and 10 of those are public works employees who live in Suffolk County and racked up more than $125,000 in excess costs over two years, the new report said.

Noting a “culture of complacency,” Schnirman said that there was no central oversight of the county’s take-home vehicle fleet; drivers who have access to these vehicles were not routinely having their information entered into a statewide database to ensure that they have valid licenses; and there was no formal policy in place to ensure that vehicles are returned after the employee either retires, resigns or is fired.

“There shouldn’t be any confusion as to what department and employee a vehicle is assigned to,” Schnirman said. “These aren’t toys. These are assets that should be only used as needed by authorized employees.”

The county has responded by requiring more accountability from each department; more closely scrutinizing the use of take-home vehicles by contractor employees; and improving maintenance of the inventory of fleet vehicles, according to the latest audit.

Curran’s administration “has taken up the issues that we found and they have taken them up quickly, and it’s a great example of the whole purpose of an audit, to actually affect results and get results,” Schnirman said in a telephone interview before the news conference.

To ensure the county follows through, Schnirman and Deputy Comptroller Kim G. Brandeau said the county’s performance again will be audited in six months.

“Transparency in our government is a priority for my administration,” Curran said in a statement released by Schnirman’s office. “We must restore faith in government.”

During the comptroller’s office investigation, “the lack of centralized fleet management required auditors to piece together information between departments to determine the correct number of County-owned vehicles and develop a master list who is authorized to drive them.”

Schnirman’s office found the Department of Public Works did not know who drove the 71 county-owned vehicles that three years ago were reassigned to Suez North America, which runs the county’s wastewater system.

The audit determined that more than 20 percent of drivers did not acknowledge the county’s online vehicle policy and that there was “no evidence that any department head had performed the required annual assessment of the need for take-home vehicles assigned to their employees.”

Schnirman also estimated the excess costs for fuel and depreciation for the vehicles used by the public works employees living in Suffolk were $71,785 in 2016 and $55,519 in 2017. In 2015, that number was estimated at $60,000.

Maragos had recommended possibly abolishing the practice of giving take-home vehicles to out-of-county employees, five state judges and the commissioner of jurors.

Judicial branch workers no longer have those cars, the current comptroller’s office said.

That is one of two problems that were fixed, the audit said. The second passing grade Nassau got was for updating and issuing its handbook on motor vehicle polices.

Three departments, police, corrections, public works, the district attorney’s office and the Fire Commission have most of the county’s take-home cars, the report said. These vehicles are only given to 4.8 percent of the county workforce and they cannot be used by off-duty workers — unless they are commuting.

Problems with Nassau County employees’ use of take-home cars the comptroller found:

  • Nassau lacked “a complete and accurate inventory” of the vehicles that were used by different departments.
  • Departments were not held accountable; for instance, one retiree’s vehicle took weeks to locate.
  • The county did not know who was driving 71 vehicles assigned to contract workers.
  • More than 20 percent of the workers could not show they understood county policies as they had not completed online forms.

       County executive’s response to criticisms:

  • Agreed with majority of findings; has already begun correcting the problems.
  • A Department of Public Works unit now is responsible for oversight and stronger controls.
  • Obtained names of all contractors driving county vehicles; will monitor their driver’s licenses. Obtained the insurance certificates.
  • Plans to streamline fleet reporting for all the county.

Source:  Nassau comptroller audit 

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