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Government Cars on Chopping Block

Does the government of the Virgin Islands really need so many cars? Lynn Millin Maduro, commissioner of the Department of Property and Procurement, doesn’t think so, and if she has her way those ubiquitous white vehicles with custom plates may become a little scarcer on the territory’s roads next year.

At the last count, in July, the government owned at least 1,622 vehicles, or about one for every 65 people in the territory. And that number only includes vehicles owned by the executive branch. The legislature and judicial branches manage their own fleets independently from Property and Procurement.

Of those 1,622 vehicles, some are police cruisers or specialty equipment, such as backhoes or VITRAN buses, but the majority are passenger vehicles. The fleet log is a 58-page litany of Impalas, Silverados, Blazers, and Envoys.

“There’s a lot of vehicles that aren’t necessary,” Millin Maduro said.

She has set an aggressive goal to slash the fleet by 20 percent, or about 325 vehicles, in the coming year. This could save the government a significant amount of money, because the territory picks up the tab for each vehicle’s gas and maintenance.

However, Millin Maduro said that the move was more about preventing misuse.

Everyone in the Virgin Islands has seen a government vehicle someplace it shouldn’t have been, whether it’s at a bar, Kmart or the beach. Millin Maduro said she hears complaints from citizens all the time, but there is little she can do about it.

That’s because Property and Procurement, while in charge of maintaining the government’s vehicles, does not have direct control over how the vehicles are used or who gets to take one home. Millin Maduro said that once a vehicle is assigned to a department, that department has wide latitude over how it is managed, and it’s ultimately up to the commissioners to ensure it isn’t misused.

Millin Maduro said that when it comes to managing the vehicles, there is a hodge-podge of competing standards. Some agencies, such as the Department of Planning and Natural Resources and the Department of Labor, keep close tabs on their vehicles. Others are far more lax.

“We’re trying to bring back some sort of control to the management of the vehicles,” Millin Maduro said. ”Because right now it’s a little out of control.”

She said the key to the confusion is the breakdown of the motor pool system. Originally, most government cars were meant to be used on a “pool” basis. Very few employees would have their own personal government cars. Most would have to check out a vehicle when they needed one. This system has largely broken down, however, as the government fleet has swelled.

“We acquire new vehicles and we don’t retire out the old,” Millin Maduro explained. She added that older cars became“hand me downs” to lower level employees

Over the years, as departments acquired more cars than they really needed, there was no longer a need for a motor pool.

“The vehicles have now been earmarked for particular individuals and they’re not being used as pool vehicles,” Millin Maduro said.

As vehicles began to be seen as employees’ property, fewer questions were asked on how they were being used.

By slashing the fleet, Millin Maduro believes departments will have no choice but to return to the pool system and keep closer tabs on the cars they have left, though she doesn’t expect the change to be easy.

“Old habits die hard, and they’re going to fight,” she said. “But if they have less vehicles in the fleet, we’re going to force a more stringent management control of how they use them.”

Which cars will be phased out and which will be kept has not yet been determined. Millen Maduro said the departments’ needs will be taken into account—the Meals on Wheels program obviously requires wheels, she said—but ultimately the decision will have more to do with the age and condition of the vehicles.

Later this month, Property and Procurement will roll out a new computer system, called Fleet Mate, which will aid them in their decision. Previously, Property and Procurement was only able to track the total amount of gas and maintenance ordered by each department. The Fleet Mate system will allow them to take a closer look and see how many resources are being directed to each individual vehicle.

“We can now track to a specific vehicle how much maintenance is going into that vehicle, what that damage is, and if it’s recurring,” Millin Maduro said.

This will allow the department to identify which vehicles are past their prime.

The system will also allow the department to crack down on individual employees who have been abusing their car privileges.

Anytime a government car is refueled, the driver must fill out a gas coupon, which is later redeemed by the gas station with Property and Procurement. Fleet Mate will track the information contained on these coupons and link fuel purchases to specific cars and drivers. That data can then be analyzed for abnormalities.

“If it’s a vehicle that’s not on the road 24/7, but we see there’s a lot of gas usage, we know that either the gas efficiency of the car is not good or there’s some sort of overuse on the vehicle and it’s not being used for the intended purpose,” Millin Maduro said.

She added she believed this new level of transparency will catch abusers and discourage other employees from pushing their luck.

“Once people know you’re doing that, they’ll be less inclined to use and abuse the vehicles,” she said.

Millin Maduro believes Fleet Mate will yield immediate results when it comes online later this month. The department had been feeding information into the system for more than a year, but could not access that data because the system would crash when they attempted to export information. Millin Maduro said the department is finishing the installation of a new database that will solve this problem, and the department should get their first look at the more detailed information soon.

She said her department and the governor acknowledge that there are problems and abuses with the way government vehicles are being managed and that the public should interpret the changes she is implementing as a sign that the government is taking this issue seriously.

“It’s about trying to break age-old patterns and trying to get us to be more efficient,” she said.

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