Well, they tried. Credit the Legislature with attempting, by golly, to devise a system to track state vehicles.
Some of the juicier “facts” in a database that lists 7,145 cars and such Mississippi purchased during the past few years at a total cost of $194 million:
• One in five has more than 1 million miles.
• A third get more than 100 miles per gallon.
• Almost 90 percent have no assigned use.
• More than half have never experienced any maintenance costs such as tires or oil changes.
Not one of that is the least bit accurate, of course, and that’s the problem.
Here’s the story:
In 2006, the Legislature directed the Department of Finance and Administration to task a unit — the Bureau of Fleet Management — with improving the efficiency and perhaps some savings in the arena of state vehicle operations. Legal “musts” ordained by the Legislature have been updated several times since, including the 2017 session.
The state needs vehicles, lots of them. The Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, the Mississippi Department of Transportation and a bevy of other agencies must have cars and trucks — lots of cars and trucks — to do their work.
So the thinking was, “Why not optimize?”
To that end, in 2014 software was purchased and customized into the Mississippi Accountability System for Government Information and Collaboration. If you missed it, the acronym is MAGIC.
The database was to receive regular inputs of information regarding every vehicle so that a clean system of buying, using, servicing and retiring rolling stock would come into existence.
That hasn’t happened.
Largely because agencies have simply failed to enter information or have entered information incorrectly. Garbage (or nothing) in, garbage out.
To stress, the premise is that lawmakers can’t plan, can’t budget, can’t anticipate needs without keeping track of inventory.
No private business could operate this way. Imagine a shirt-seller trying to stock shelves without knowing how many shirts, on average, were being sold or how many were on hand. In football, it would be akin to punting on first down.
Another loss is that under the plan the state stood to gain by selling or trading used vehicles. According to the master plan, the standard was to retire vehicles after 120,000 miles or six years, whichever came first. Instead, some troopers are driving rolling wrecks.
Some very basic rules are part of state law.
• Every vehicle is to be classed as (1) commute, (2) non-commute or (3) law enforcement. A commute vehicle is assigned to an employee, non-commute vehicles are kept in pools and law enforcement vehicles, well, have blue lights.
• Each vehicle is to have a log. Entries are basic — mileage and purpose of each trip.
• When feasible from pools, the most economic vehicle for a trip should be used for a trip.
• Employees who are issued vehicles are supposed to remain in compliance with IRS reporting requirements.
After gleaning the bogus data, current through February, the Legislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Committee cited chapter and verse of the state code making clear that it is a violation of existing law for agencies to fail to make required entries to the MAGIC database. Sadly, the report also makes clear that nothing happens if the law is ignored which, of course, it has been.
In her response to the report issued last month, Laura D. Jackson, executive director of the Department of Finance and Administration, doesn’t quibble with the findings. She did write that she believes the 2017 amendments giving the Bureau of Fleet Management marginally more authority to compel agency entries into the database will help.
Otherwise, just verbiage.
“Agencies must be committed to cost-saving measures and willing to follow the recommendations ... mentioned in the report regarding the lowest cost vehicle necessary to perform the function required,” she wrote. “Additionally, and as mentioned in the report, DFA provides a comprehensive fleet management system in MAGIC, which is grossly underutilized by agencies.”
The PEER report doesn’t cover city, county, school or university vehicles and the $194 million figure does not include reimbursements paid to public employees for use of their private vehicles on state business.
Real or perceived misuse of public vehicles piques voters. Perhaps that’s why lawmakers have attempted to add accountability. So far, very little success.
PEER recommends that the Legislature revisit the topic in 2018 and, once again, tighten up.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist.