You Get a Car? Depends on Who You Are in the City of East Lansing.

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City Manager George Lahanas featured with two City vehicles.

The City of East Lansing has made nearly $2 million in new vehicle purchases in the last year in addition to paying monthly car allowances at various rates to 24 employees. This is according to documents that ELi received from the City through a Freedom of Information Act Request (FOIA).

ELi sought the information following a tip from a City employee who felt that the City’s spending represents government waste of tax dollars.

Today, we bring you analysis of what we found. In terms of background, East Lansing is a relatively small City geographically, including under 14 square miles.

Over 1 in 6 vehicles in the City’s fleet was purchased in the last year.

Since September 2019, the City of East Lansing has purchased 21 new vehicles at a total cost of $1,722,145, bringing the total fleet size to 118 vehicles.

Following its purchases over the last year, the City now has a ratio of about 1 vehicle owned for every 2.5 fulltime workers.

Approximately $1,130,000 of the new purchases went to big rigs, such as a garbage truck and dump truck. But the City also spent $591,508 on smaller Ford vehicles, primarily SUVs to be used by individual City workers.

In her response to a series of questions posed by ELi, the City’s Communications Coordinator told ELi that the purchase of new vehicles was part of the City’s move over the past five years of “reinvesting in fleet assets, acquiring the vehicles and equipment required to provide essential services and functions – safely and efficiently, while reducing reactive maintenance associated with older vehicles.”

When asked why the City does not use retired ELPD cars for its employees to use, Frey said, “Unlike a typical vehicle used for three years, a police vehicle gets many miles of around-the-clock driving.”

“The City has repurposed old police vehicles,” she continued over email, “and paid heavily in reactive maintenance and reliability when using them in high-usage capacities.”

One of ELPD’s vehicles parked near the station.

Six City workers have new vehicles assigned specifically to them.

Of the 21 vehicles purchased in the last year, six were assigned for use by specific individuals:

  • Cathy DeShambo and Ron Lacasse of the Department of Public Works;
  • Tim McCaffrey of Parks and Recreation;
  • now-Acting Chief Steve Gonzalez and Captain Chad Connelly of ELPD;
  • Carlos Barajas of Planning, Building, and Development.

Although ELPD cars are subject to the most wear-and-tear, ELPD only received two new vehicles in the last year – the 2020 Ford Explorers assigned to Connelly and Gonzalez, which cost $33,330 each. In 2018, ELPD obtained 11 new vehicles and, in 2017, a total of 9 new vehicles, all of which are still in service.

“Green” vehicles cost more green.

The three vehicles purchased for use by DeShambo and Lacasse in Public Works and McCaffrey in Parks and Rec are 2020 Ford Escape SUV SE Sport Hybrids. They cost $27,030 each.

Frey explained that City policy favors purchase of hybrid and electric vehicles, which are typically significantly more expensive than conventional vehicles.

Council is set tonight to take up a resolution to push towards more “green energy” purchases, which in theory could save money but in fact may not. These SUV hybrids are a case in point.

According to Frey, “The 2020 Hybrid Escape is roughly $2,800 more than the non-Hybrid Escape. The return on investment is typically realized in the first year of ownership,” she said.

But how quickly that price differential is made up depends on the mileage driven.

ELi’s calculations, which are based upon information from Ford and AAA, suggest that if the SUVs assigned to DeShambo, Lacasse, and McCaffrey were each driven 5,000 miles a year (an estimate based on mileage numbers obtained), gas for each vehicle would cost approximately $250 a year instead of $400 for a non-hybrid model.

The negligible savings in gas—$150 a year—means it would take the City over 18 years for the gas savings to cover the price difference between the hybrid and non-hybrid cars.

Why so many individually-assigned vehicles?

In responses to ELi, the City initially justified only vehicles for ELPD Acting Chief Gonzalez and ELFD Chief Randy Talifarro – who has a 2018 Ford Explorer assigned to him – stating, “Certain positions, based on the need for service, have an actual City vehicle (i.e. police chief, fire chief), based on their need to be readily available 24/7 to respond to emergencies.”

ELFD Chief Randy Talifarro featured left and ELPD Chief Steve Gonzalez featured right.

But after we asked why non-emergency personnel have SUVs personally assigned to them, ELi was told that, “Cathy DeShambo and Ron Lacasse have broad duties in their roles as administrators, in that they are also the supervisors for field operations employees in all divisions of DPW and are expected to respond to emergencies day and night.”

While DeShambo and Lacasse may arrive on the scene of emergencies, many of the workers responsible for clearing roads and moving downed trees do not have City vehicles at their disposal. They drive their own vehicles to the City’s lots to get vehicles as needed and are not compensated for commuting.

But in the case of DeShambo and Lacasse, the City permits taking the vehicles home when they are considered to be on call, saving them the cost of commuting.

A select group of City workers gets car allowances.

The City of East Lansing also provides 24 white-collar employees with car allowances, varying from $135 to $300 per month, costing the city a total of $3,956 monthly, or $47,472 annually.

A few of these workers have obvious field aspects to their jobs – for example, assessing properties or undertaking building inspections.

Others who benefit from the perk, however, would seem to do less travel, such the director of the East Lansing Public Library. The City’s library includes only one building located a few blocks from City Hall.

Gary Caldwell for ELi

The front entrance of the East Lansing Public Library

The City seems to lack a clear policy on who gets an assigned car versus a car allowance. In the Department of Public Works, Cathy DeShambo and Ron Lacasse are assigned vehicles, but lead engineer Nicole McPherson and Director of DPW Scott House receive allowances.

ELi was told that, “Vehicles and car allowances are assigned in multiple ways across the various City departments with approval from the department directors and the city manager. It’s based on position and job duties.”

Those workers who don’t rate an assigned vehicle or a regular allowance can ask for reimbursement if they have to use a personal vehicle for City business.

It appears from our calculation that more use of that approach would save the taxpayers money.

In 2019, the year for which ELi received information on car allowances, the IRS reimbursement for business-related travel was 58 cents per mile.

By that metric, City Manager George Lahanas is being paid for nearly 520 miles a month with his $300 a month car allowance (the highest of any City employee). His schedule, at least currently, would not seem to involve that level of driving for City business.

Seven employees—Court Administrator Nicole Evans, Director of Public Works Scott House, Engineering Administrator Nicole McPherson, Finance Director Jill Feldpausch, Director of Human Resources Shelli Neumann, Librarian Kristin Shelley, and Director of Planning Tom Fehrenbach—receive a monthly car allowance of $200.

That would cover 345 miles of travel each month for the City at the 2019 IRS rate.

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