Gas guzzling government vehicles burn up your tax dollars

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - With gas approaching $4/gallon, many of us are changing our spending habits, driving less, and buying smaller, more fuel efficient cars. But have government officials, who are in charge of spending your tax dollars, learned that same lesson? Doug Walker found the answer is mostly "No."

The first stop is in Hancock County, where big is the norm. There are big trucks and SUVs, even for departments that you wouldn't think would need them, like the Assessor's and Planning Departments.

There are 68 total vehicles in the county, and 64 of them are trucks and SUVs. Seven vehicles have been bought since the gas scare of 2008, all of them big trucks, including three F-150s for the supervisors to drive. The trucks average 17 miles to the gallon on a good day.  So why is big necessary?

County Administrator Princy Harrison has a theory.

"Honestly, I don't know why the supervisors have trucks, other than that's just standard operating procedure for Mississippi," Harrison said.

David Yarborough is one of those supervisors.  He defends the practice.

"I could only say for myself personally, yes, I need a truck," Yarborough said.  "I do a lot of things, and basically, that's our office as well. There are a lot of times you have to have a truck."

In Harrison County, big is also standard operating procedure. Of the 423 total vehicles, 259 are trucks and SUVs. Fifty employees have take home privileges, and 45 of them drive trucks. Since 2008, 14 vehicles have been bought, and every one has been a truck.

Marlin Ladner is one of the few supervisors who does not drive a truck. His attitude about big being better is starting to change.

"If you don't need a truck or a large vehicle, there's no need in purchasing one," Ladner said. "We need to be cognizant, especially with the fact that gas prices are going up, and to be more prudent with the taxpayers' money."

George Leisure pumps gas for the county on a part time basis. He sees how much money is spent every day.

"Well, I think government needs to become more efficient, like we are," Leisure said.  "I mean, I had to buy a more fuel efficient vehicle so I could afford to buy fuel."

At the sheriff's department, 98 deputies take cars home every day. The department purchased 22 vehicles in 2010, including two vans and six SUVs.  Sheriff Melvin Brisolara, and other administrators, drive those gas guzzling SUVs. Is that really necessary? Brisolara said, "Yes."

"Where do you put a price on these vehicles for law enforcement?" the sheriff asked. "It's hard to take just the gas cost into consideration for the benefit you get out of the SUVs. The SUVs are 4-wheel drive. All our work is not done, especially in the rural part of the county, there are dirt roads and woods that we end up having to go into."

One thing you notice about government: Government is reluctant to change, sometimes can't change, it seems. Unlike you and I, the taxpayers, who feel the pain at the pump every day. In fact, when county vehicles are gassed up at the county pump station in D'Iberville, the price isn't even displayed.

Drivers who do see the price at the pump are stretching their dollars, and want business as usual to stop. Cheryl Longfellow is one of them.

"We need to buy smaller or drive smaller cars to conserve fuel and everything, the government should. Since we're paying for their gas and everything, they ought to do the same thing," Longfellow said.

Charles Jones agreed, saying, "I think if I have to buy a small car and conserve my gasoline, I think the government should do the same thing."

"They should buy smaller cars with better efficient motors, because someone's got to pay the money for the gas," John Yarborough said. "Therefore it's going to fall down on the taxpayers. And guess what? Taxes will probably increase."

Drive into Jackson County, and you see the same thing: Big trucks and SUVs. The county owns 158 vehicles, 116 of those are trucks and SUVs. Of the 35 vehicles purchases since 2009, 24 are trucks or SUVs.

John McKay is a supervisor and drives a big truck. Will he ever break that gas guzzling habit?

"I think so. I think we're going to be required to change as gas prices continue to escalate," McKay said. "Hopefully, whoever the next supervisor is, we're going to be buying some new trucks and I think you'll be looking more favorably on smaller S-10 pick-up trucks."

Benny Goff is the County Tax Assessor. For the past year, his focus has been different than most other elected officials. Smaller is better. He bought 10 Ford Focuses for his staff.  They average about 30 miles to the gallon.  His reason for doing so is simple.

"At my house, I have to pay bills and we try and do it the most economical way," Goff said.  "We got a large group of folks that drive these things, and the more we drive the smaller cars the better off it is for us. It saves the county money."

So why aren't more elected officials following Goff's lead, and downsizing? Goff wonders too.

"Apparently, they haven't paid attention that we bought the smaller vehicles. So I'm not sure."

Back in Hancock County, Princy Harrison predicts the habit of buying big will be a tough one to break.

"I do not see in politics they take as much time for long range planning as they would in a business, because their needs are not necessarily long range."

Officials in all three coastal counties say it's very difficult to determine exactly how much is spent on gasoline each year, since short and long term fuel contracts are signed several times a year.  It is safe to say that hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent each year on gasoline and diesel fuel.

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