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Beckley Sanitary Board defends personal use of truck

By Rusty Marks, Staff writer

Officials for the Beckley Sanitary Board say a manager who took a government-owned truck on vacation to South Carolina last week did nothing wrong.

The vehicle, a Ford F-150 pickup truck with the West Virginia municipal license plate CT-580, was photographed at the Barefoot Landing shopping plaza in Myrtle Beach on July 10. The photograph was posted on Facebook.

State records have the truck registered to the Beckley Sanitary Board. Officials at the sanitary board confirmed Tuesday that the truck was assigned to a senior manager at the sanitary board.

But sanitary board officials said managers at the board are allowed to use their government-issued vehicles for personal use.

According to a statement issued by Beckley Mayor and Sanitary Board Chairman William O’Brien, “The Beckley Sanitary Board historically provides company vehicles to senior management level employees as part of a competitive comprehensive compensation package.” O’Brien said managers often have to answer emergency calls at all hours of the day or night “in an area that exceeds 25 square miles in the Greater Beckley area.”

O’Brien said the company vehicles are considered a “taxable fringe benefit” for the employees who use them, and who get to use the vehicles in lieu of extra pay. The value of the use of the vehicle and mileage for personal use must be reported to the Internal Revenue Service as taxable income.

O’Brien’s prepared statement does not address whether personal use of a vehicle was intended to include vacation trips to Myrtle Beach, where the manager was photographed in the vehicle with his wife and children. Sanitary Board attorney Gavin Ward said Tuesday that sanitary board officials would not be commenting further.

But the Beckley Sanitary Board’s policy on the personal use of vehicles is contrary to what other government agencies allow in the state of West Virginia.

Larry Roller, general manager of the Charleston Sanitary Board, said his employees are not allowed to drive vehicles for personal use.

“We don’t permit it here,” Roller said. “Nobody — including me — takes a vehicle home at night.” He said employees are permitted to stop by a restaurant and grab lunch while on the job or pick up a prescription on the way back to the office, but are not supposed to use a government vehicle for private business.

Diane Holley-Brown, communications director for the state Department of Administration, said the state also prohibits the use of state-owned vehicles for private purposes. According to the vehicle use policy adopted by the state Office of Fleet Management, “All travel must be for official state business. No personal business or travel is authorized or permitted.”

The West Virginia Ethics Commission has not ruled specifically on whether or not a sanitary board is allowed to let employees use government vehicles for private use. But the ethics commission has issued advisory opinions on the use of government-owned vehicles in the past.

Earlier this year, the Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion saying that counties could not provide vehicles to emergency service providers as a taxable fringe benefit.

And while acknowledging there are some instances where “limited use of public resources by public employees constitutes a permissible fringe benefit,” the bulk of the Ethics Commission’s opinions on private use of public vehicles suggests the practice is a bad idea.

“Potentially, a governing body may bear an inordinate cost by providing such a fringe benefit if an employee using public equipment is in an accident and injures her/himself or another person, damages the property of another or damages the equipment beyond repair,” the Ethics Commission wrote in January’s opinion.

“Generally, when public servants avail themselves of public resources not available similarly to the general public, this constitutes private gain,” the opinion stated.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1215 or follow @rusty_marks on Twitter.


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