Los Angeles County - Take Home Cars

Supervisors Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich each exceeded the county’s price limit when they bought their hybrid SUVs: a $56,288 Chevrolet Tahoe and a top-of-the-line $65,648 GMC Yukon Denali, respectively. (Hans Gutknecht — Staff Photographer)

By Mike Reicher, Los Angeles Daily News
Posted: 07/11/15 – 3:23 PM PDT |

Walk the garage under Los Angeles County’s headquarters and you’ll see rows of practical Ford Tauruses and efficient Toyota Priuses — the ones with government seals on the front doors.

Turn a corner and placards proclaim: “Reserved at all times. Member — Board of Supervisors.” Along this wall are sleek new Acuras and monster American SUVs. One, a $66,000 Yukon Hybrid Denali, gets 21 miles per gallon; those standard passenger sedans can get more than twice that.

The civil grand jury in 2008 criticized the Los Angeles county government for buying top officials “luxury” vehicles with poor gas mileage. Not much has changed since. The Board of Supervisors never set limits on indulgence, like the grand jury recommended. Nor did it track — besides for one year after the audit — how many expensive cars its workers drive. Now, new records show the county has 71 percent more pricey vehicles than it did seven years ago. Supervisors themselves bought take-home autos with features like plush leather and lousy fuel-efficiency.

“Most local governments are going stripped down. They’re going bare bones,” said Phillip Russo, CEO of the National Association of Fleet Administrators, an industry trade group. “It may not look good for your city council or mayor to be driving around with a certain vehicle that you paid for with your tax dollars.”

The number of county vehicles costing more than $30,000 — a threshold set by the grand jury — rose from 452 in 2008 to 773 in 2014. At the request of this news organization, officials reproduced the list for the most recent year available.

While none of the elected supervisors agreed to be interviewed, Patrick Ogawa, the supervisors’ top administrator, blamed the increase on more expensive technology and “energy-efficient features” that now come standard. He also said inflation played a role.

“The county exercises strong control over the use of public vehicles by its employees,” Ogawa wrote in an email.

Officials do now require annual centralized reporting about who gets take-home vehicles and how much they drive, but the 29 “executives,” including the five supervisors, don’t have to fill out the same forms.

The improved reporting standards were in response to the grand jury audit, Ogawa said. But the new policies don’t cover what vehicle types are too luxurious, as the civilian jury recommended.

Joe Sandoval, the general manager of purchasing, said his office stopped compiling the $30,000-plus list because the Board of Supervisors deemed it useless. Instead of focusing on passenger vehicles — as the grand jury did and county officials promised to do — the list showed all vehicles, including specialized equipment such as ambulances and dump trucks.

“It was too much paperwork,” Sandoval said. “It was just too much.”

The 2007-2008 grand jury was poking around in local government operations — that’s what civil grand juries do — when its members suspected county employees were abusing their take-home auto privileges at taxpayers’ expense. Their findings were wide-ranging: from tax reporting irregularities to SUVs with excessive features.

“Without clear direction from the Board of Supervisors,” the report said, officials “do not have a strong incentive to purchase vehicles that more closely meet the business needs of the departments and are priced at a lower cost.”

Former juror John Smythe, 84, said last week he was not surprised the county still had luxury take-home cars. He’s a retired commercial delivery service dispatcher living in L.A.

“To me, it’s a lot of inflated egos,” Smythe said, “and that becomes very expensive.”

To read expanded story, click here.