Who could have imagined that asking how many vehicles the state government of West Virginia has would turn into a kind of existential quest.
State officials and government agencies have been trying for several years now to figure out just how many cars and trucks the state owns and operates and where they are all located. So far, they have not been able to come up with an accurate number.
In fact, the accounting varies wildly. Two years ago, the Legislative Auditor found that the Fleet Management Office reported 7,648 vehicles, while the Division of Motor Vehicles reported 10,504 (based on license plates), and the Board of Risk and Management said it was insuring 12,609 cars and trucks.
Delegate Gary Howell (R-Mineral) has been digging into the issue. “I started asking the question, ‘How many vehicles do we have?’ And nobody could answer it.”
During an interview on Talkline Wednesday he recounted one instance where the state received a bill from the New Jersey Turnpike for a vehicle with a West Virginia state license plate that ran through a toll booth without paying. The state sold that vehicle back in 1996, but the plate was still in circulation.
The biggest problem is that the state has no uniform tracking system for the vehicles. However, that is changing, and hopefully for the better.
This week, Governor Jim Justice signed into law HB 4015 creating a Fleet Management Division within the administration. That division will be responsible for creating a centralized accounting system for all state vehicles.
Howell says one important provision of the new law does away with the familiar green and white state government license plates and replaces them with new gold and blue plates. The big difference, however, is not the color; currently the green tags never have to be renewed, but these new state tags have to be renewed every two years creating a better way to track the vehicles.
The improved accounting should also tell the state how much these vehicles are being used. State rules say they should be on the road at least 1,100 miles a month. However, an earlier audit found that four out of ten fell below the minimum.
Howell says if a vehicle is underutilized it may be more cost effective to own fewer vehicles and rent a car or truck when necessary. “My guess is we’re wasting a lot of money and we’re going to save millions of dollars once we get that data.”
West Virginians have complained for years about “state vehicles running up and down the interstate.” The suggestion behind the gripe is that the state is wasting taxpayer dollars. But amazingly nobody within government could say for sure whether all the green-tagged cars and trucks were necessary for official business or even accurately account for all the vehicles.
It has taken awhile and an act of the Legislature, but West Virginia may finally be able to count the cars.