AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin’s Fleet Services department had “grossly inefficient practices” that resulted in the purchase of an unnecessary vehicle and the waste of $45,000 in city funds, according to an audit released in November.
City auditors investigated Fleet Services after hearing about allegations of waste during a 2014 vehicle acquisition process. The audit turned up what appears to be a series of problems related to an attempt, in 2014, to buy a car for the Austin Police Department.
Deputy Fleet Officer Jennifer Walls told KXAN the issue stemmed from an administrative error.
“We did, inadvertently through an administrative error, purchase the wrong vehicle,” Walls said. “We’ve since taken corrective action to put processes in places and extra verification points to make sure that does not occur again.”
The problem began when a specification writer tasked with getting an APD “pursuit-rated vehicle” accidentally requested a quote for the wrong model-type of a Chevrolet Tahoe, with a cost of $43,843, from the city’s vendor. Management did not catch the mistake.
When the Tahoe arrived, Fleet realized it was incorrect, and APD would not accept it. Fleet attempted to offer the vehicle to an alternative department, without success, the audit states.
Roger Falk, with the Travis County Taxpayers Union, said the problem raises concerns about how the city handles taxpayer money. If the city botched a $45,000 vehicle purchase, he asked, how will it handle the recently passed $720 million bond package?
“The big concern I have is that this went through two levels of oversight at the city, was not caught, and then went to the vendor who did catch it and called the city and they didn’t respond positively,” Falk told KXAN. “What happened here when you have the vendor saying, ‘I think you’re ordering the wrong vehicle and they continue along that incorrect pathway – what’s going on here?”
Fleet staff told city auditors that the director of Fleet Services, Gerry Calk, decided to “keep the vehicle in Fleet Services and that he would drive it around for business purposes. The director also decided to paint parts of the vehicle black because it arrived in the standard APD colors of black and white,” according to the audit.
Painting the car black cost the city an additional $1,575, which was less costly than painting it white. Calk only used the vehicle for business, not personal use. He is still using the Tahoe, and it has about 9,860 miles on it, according to the city and Walls. APD still has not received its replacement vehicle.
Calk communicated to his employees that the vehicle was a “rental pool vehicle.” However, many employees told the auditors they thought the Tahoe “was in effect assigned to the director as the vehicle was not listed in the rental pool database,” according to the audit.
Calk disagreed with two conclusions reached by the auditors. He disagreed that the $45,000 spent on the vehicle was a waste. Calk said the vehicle would be substituted for a new vehicle purchase in the future, which would eliminate spending at that time,according to a memo.
“While the report identified inefficiencies that had existed in the acquisition process at the time the errors occurred, the characterization of gross inefficiency is not reflective of the true situation,” Calk stated in the memo.
Auditors found two Fleet Service employees modified records provided to the auditor, by making it appear the car in question was in the vehicle rental pool. These two employees “failed to fully cooperate” with the audit.
Staff also noted the same specification writer made other acquisition errors that resulted in Fleet Services buying the wrong vehicles and equipment. Those errors did not appear in the employee’s written appraisals or personnel file, according to the audit.
Since the audit, Fleet Services has indicated it will “amend its practices to avoid a similar mistake in the future.”
Assistant City Manager Mark Washington asked the Fleet to further investigate its employees that failed to cooperate fully with the investigation, according to a city memo.
Calk also said the two employees that modified documents were counseled.
“Senior management has counseled the employees involved on the importance of communicating changes made to data to any investigative body immediately should they have knowledge that such data is or may be the subject of an investigation,” according to Calk’s memo.
Walls said corporate HR is conducting its own investigation, and the city could not comment on the two employees or release their names.
The auditor’s office received 306 allegations in 2016, which is an increase compared to the past two years. With those complaints, the auditor’s office opened 29 investigations and found 16 to be substantiated. You can see a breakdown of the auditor’s yearly work here.