Last updated: February 16. 2013 7:22PM - 691 Views

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A city department head who was caught up in a controversy over use of city gasoline will no longer drive his personal vehicle on city business and instead will use a 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee that‚??s being purchased by the city.

City officials said the decision to buy the nearly $28,000 SUV for use by Ken Pahler is part of an overall plan to purchase more vehicles for certain departments in lieu of paying mileage to employees who use their personal vehicles in their jobs.

The decision has raised the ire of two taxpayer advocates who questioned the necessity and cost effectiveness of the purchase.

Pahler will use the vehicle primarily to drive around the city, checking on crews doing paving, snow removal and other road work, said Butch Frati, director of operations. Pahler will be permitted to take the vehicle to his home because he is on call at all hours, Frati said.

Pahler, who lives on Gilligan Street, had been utilizing his private truck and was permitted to fuel the vehicle at the city‚??s pumps at the DPW building on Conyngham Avenue, which is about three miles from his home.

That policy changed in July, after a Times Leader investigation that uncovered missing fuel revealed Pahler was among numerous employees, including Mayor Tom Leighton, who failed to fill out fuel logs indicating how much fuel they dispensed.

He and Leighton, who also uses his private vehicle for city business, also did not keep mileage records, leaving no way to document if the fuel was used strictly for city business.

City watchdogs riled

The SUV purchase, which was approved by council last week, riled city residents Karen Ceppa Hirko and Frank Sorick, who closely monitor and often criticize city spending. The vehicle is expected to be delivered within the next few weeks.

Sorick questioned the timing of the purchase, noting it comes about a month after The Times Leader‚??s investigation revealed the city could not account for 18,000 gallons of fuel, which led Leighton to declare neither he nor Pahler would use city gas any longer and would instead seek mileage reimbursements.

‚??When they are no longer able to put city gas in their vehicles, that‚??s when the need for vehicles arises,‚?Ě Sorick said.

In an email response to Sorick‚??s comments, Leighton said his administration ‚??has never spent taxpayer‚??s money frivolously and we are not about to start now.‚?Ě

‚??We continue to look for opportunities to upgrade the city fleet and this is no different. The vehicle is purchased for the department and not any individual and it will be only used for city work,‚?Ě Leighton said.

Ceppa Hirko questioned if there aren‚??t other vehicles Pahler could use and, if not, why he can‚??t continue to use his personal vehicle and seek mileage reimbursement, which she believes would be more cost effective.

‚??They have other vehicles that can do that. Why buy a brand new vehicle?‚?Ě Ceppa Hirko said. ‚??All he needs to do is keep track of his mileage.‚?Ě

She also questioned how frequently Pahler is called out after hours that would necessitate him taking the vehicle home.

‚??How many times has he been called out and for what? Give me an analysis over the last several years,‚?Ě she said.

Frati and Drew McLaughlin, the city‚??s administrative coordinator, defended the purchase. Frati said there are no other vehicles available for Pahler to use.

Frati said the purchase is part of a plan to update the city‚??s fleet of vehicles, many of which are old and have high mileage.

‚??It takes a long time to upgrade a fleet. We recently purchased two vans. One of the vans it replaced had 350,000 miles on it; a truck was 17 years old,‚?Ě he said.

As for Pahler taking the vehicle home, Frati said he does not have specific data on how many times Pahler is called out after hours each year. That varies greatly depending on circumstances.

‚??Last week alone it was four times,‚?Ě Frati said. ‚??He responds to emergencies. I think its best he take the vehicle home.‚?Ě

McLaughlin said that city also wants to get away from paying mileage in certain departments, including code enforcement, in which employees utilize vehicles extensively for city business. The city purchased several 2012 Ford Focuses for code enforcement.

He also noted the SUV, which cost $27,482, is being purchased with money from the Liquid Fuels fund, which is funded by the state through taxes on fuel. The city checked with state officials, who confirmed the expense was allowable.

‚??We need to make an investment in our fleet. If it‚??s liquid fuels fund eligible, it saves the general fund,‚?Ě McLaughlin said.

Ceppa Hirko and Sorick said they are concerned the city doesn‚??t monitor vehicles enough to ensure those who take them home don‚??t use them for personal business.

‚??If someone‚??s on their way home and needs to stop for milk and bread at Schiel‚??s, do they use a city vehicle, or take the vehicle home and then go back to Schiel‚??s?‚?Ě Sorick said.

Ceppa Hirko said she‚??s previously asked the city if it has a written policy regarding that issue and was told none exists.

Frati said it will be made clear the vehicle is only to be used for official business. He noted it will be marked with city decals, making it easy for residents to spot.

‚??If the public sees the vehicle out and they think it‚??s inappropriate, there are checks and balances ‚?Ľ we will act accordingly,‚?Ě he said.

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