Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.
Two years ago, employees of the state of Vermont put 8,453,265 miles on their own cars while travelling on state business.
That is not a typo. That is eight million, four hundred fifty-three thousand, two hundred forty-six miles.
Perhaps a bit of an aberration, said James Reardon, the commissioner of Finance and Management, who provided the figure for fiscal year 2012 (which started July 1, 2011). Tropical Storm Irene hit just after the fiscal year began. Road crews, conservation officers and others were unusually busy. State workers from the flooded Waterbury office complex were dispersed around the state, requiring longer trips.
Still, even in a normal year, state workers drive millions of miles, and Reardon and Secretary of Administration Jeb Spaulding think the state could save some money if those workers drove less altogether, took fewer trips in their own cars and more in the state’s fleet of fuel-efficient vehicles, and got reimbursed less for every mile they drive in their cars.
Reardon and Spaulding are right, but their proposals raise some interesting questions: what is lost when state officials and staffers communicate with each other and with the public via some high-tech mechanism rather than meeting face-to-face? Will the proposed new policy also induce agency heads to discourage the highway supervisor from personally inspecting the potholes, the health inspector from visiting the restaurant, the conservation official from checking out the endangered wetland himself?
And when it comes to that reimbursement, are state workers effectively adding to their salaries – and ripping off the taxpayers – when they drive their own car from Rutland to a meeting in Montpelier, as Spaulding suggests (though he did not use the term “ripping off”)? Or are the workers actually losing money, as some statistics indicate?
Obviously, it is possible these days for people in all walks to life to get together without actually … getting together. There are conference calls, email, text, Skype, and who knows what else. Almost anyone can take a picture and transmit it – enlarged and in full color – to her boss or colleague without ever laying eyes on the boss or colleague. Thanks to this technology, the agency staff folks in Brattleboro, Bennington and Rutland can talk to their counterparts in Burlington, St. Johnsbury and Newport and to the bosses in Montpelier without getting into cars all over the state and schlepping to the capital, dirtying the air and costing money.
But as Spaulding acknowledged, sometimes state officials, analysts and inspectors should meet face to face. Sometimes they should meet face to face with the store owners, entrepreneurs, developers and consultants whose activities the state is either regulating or subsidizing or both. Emails and texts have no tone of voice. Skype calls are often discombobulated by echoes and confusion about who is talking. In governing, as in business, there is often no substitute for personal contact.
Granted, everybody knows that. But whoever knows anything about how bureaucracies work (and this applies equally to the private sector) knows that bureaucrats – agency, department and division heads and their top deputies – have a tendency to try to over-please their superiors. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest,” shouted Henry II to four of his knights (bureaucrats) who promptly murdered Thomas Becket.
State government should be thrifty. But it should also do its job, which sometimes requires spending a little more money rather than a little less.
Expect no murders of public officials in Montpelier. But the bureaucrat told to cut down on his outfit’s mileage may be tempted to block a meeting that should be held, to tell the road, health or wetland inspector to have one of his underlings take a cellphone picture and email it to the inspector’s computer rather than driving to the scene.
This doesn’t mean Spaulding is wrong to try to reduce travel expenses. It means there is a potential downside to his effort. State government should be thrifty. But it should also do its job, which sometimes requires spending a little more money rather than a little less.
A little more and a little less is at issue in the discussion of whether state workers get too much reimbursement for using their own cars on the job. Like most states and many private firms, Vermont uses the federal government rate, now 56.5 cents a mile.
Spaulding said the actual cost of driving a car is far less than that, meaning the reimbursement rate encourages state workers to use their own cars on state business instead of driving one of the more fuel-efficient state-owned cars that cost 44 cents a mile to operate.
“If you drive from Montpelier to Burlington and back, about 70 miles, (in a car that gets) 25 miles a gallon, that’s three gallons,” Spaulding said. “Even at four dollars a gallon, that’s $12 and you get (reimbursed) almost $40.”
So are state workers using the mileage rate to pad their incomes?
Not according to the AAA’s calculations of how much it costs to operate an automobile. The experts there figured it costs 61 cents a mile to drive and maintain a “medium sedan” 15,000 miles a year.
Actually, it costs more than that. The AAA study, completed late last year, assumes a gasoline price of less than $3.50 a gallon. The average Vermont price now, according to the web site gasBuddy.com, is $3.71. By that standard, it would seem that a state worker is losing money when he drives his own car to a meeting in Montpelier.
But as Spaulding points out, AAA’s estimate includes fixed costs, such as insurance and registration, that the car owner would pay whether or not she used her car on state business. AAA agrees. The actual day-to-day cost of operating that mid-size sedan, according to its report, is only 21 cents a mile.
On the other hand, the more a car is driven, the sooner it has to be replaced. It seems possible that in some cases state workers may be making a mistake if they think they’re adding to their take-home pay by using their own cars instead of driving a state vehicle or sending an email instead of going to a meeting.
But that would not refute Spaulding’s claim that the current situation creates an incentive for state workers to use their personal cars on the job. That the incentivized person might be mistaken about the value of the incentive renders her no less incentivized.
Spaulding said if the reimbursement rate could be cut by one penny, the state could save $422,000 a year. As a percentage of the roughly $1.3 billion the state government is raising and spending this year (not including federal funds), that’s chump change, and hardly worth a debate. But as Spaulding pointed out, at the end of every legislative session lawmakers pore over budget documents trying to find $50,000 here, $100,000 there to maintain services and programs. So having a few hundred-thousand more bucks to draw on can be valuable.
The complication here is that the proposal to alter the status quo alters the status quo, which is – and ought to be – difficult. If many state workers have effectively been giving themselves a pay raise via mileage reimbursement, reducing the rate effectively cuts their pay.
And their pay has already been cut. State employees accepted salary reductions a few years ago, and though they’ve gotten increases since then, for most of them real (inflation-adjusted) incomes have not gone up in years. In return for this flat (or lower) income, many of them are working harder than before because so many positions remain unfilled that the remaining workers have to take up the slack. State workers, perhaps, have done their bit and then some when it comes to holding down spending.
The point here is not that the state shouldn’t try to save money. It should. The point is that there is a price to be paid for saving money.