Toward the end of the Humboldt County Taxpayers' League's board meeting out at the Samoa Cookhouse last week, long after the gum-easy hot beef meal had been consumed, member David Elsebusch reported that he'd obtained copies of the most recent round of approved overnight vehicle requests by county employees: two vehicles in the Coroner's office, nine in the District Attorney's, 20 in Public Works and 24 in the Sheriff's. He said some of them seemed unjustified.
There wasn't much time to discuss it, though; the meeting had to wrap up. But a couple of days later, by phone, Elsebusch described his long-time interest in overnight vehicle requests. Elsebusch was on the county's Vehicle Use Committee, which weighed such requests, from 1999 until 2002 (when the Board of Supervisors booted him because he was appointed to the Grand Jury -- conflict of interest, the Board said; hogwash, said Elsebusch). That committee was later disbanded, and now requests are decided by the deputy County Administrative Officer. There's a problem right there, said Elsebusch: a single person making the decision, when it ought to be a committee comprised of citizens doing it. Did that person have the guts to question, say, the District Attorney, whose requests Elsebusch, for one, finds bogus?
"The D.A. is a prime example, because they are investigators, and that means they're not the first responders," he said. "An investigator is an investigator -- after the fact. They don't have to respond 'at a moment's notice,' as they say. ... And a number of these people say they're on-call all the time. One said they go out 52 times a month. I think they overestimate it sometimes."
Elsebusch questioned why the coroner's office needs take-home vehicles. And he could see how some outlying Sheriff's deputies, such as Robert Hamilton, the resident deputy in Shelter Cove, might operate from home if they don't have a substation to report to. But why do some Eureka deputies take their cars home? Why does Lieutenant Steve Knight, who lives in Eureka and is in charge of the animal shelter, need an overnight vehicle, especially when he'd reported on his request form that he only had about three after-hours call-outs in 2008-2009? Does he get an overnight car, wondered Elsebusch, simply because he's a high-ranker, a lieutenant? Also, why do all five deputies and the sergeant in command in the Hoopa Valley get to take their cars home? And why don't McKinleyville's eight deputies?
Elsebusch said he didn't question public work's requests. Those employees might have snowplows on their rigs or other gear needed to respond to emergencies such as floods and downed trees and such. Although, he did wonder why Airport Manager Jacquelyn Hulsey needs an overnight car.
Coroner Dave Parris, by phone Monday, said that while his deputies have been cleared to take a vehicle home after hours (nights and weekends), only one vehicle is taken home at a time -- by the deputy coroner on call. The other vehicle stays parked at the office. "We get called out after hours several times a week," Parris said. "I was out twice this weekend. Overdoses: One in Cutten, one at St. Joseph's Hospital. And the response time would be hampered if I had to go to the office first to get the gear and then respond."
Tuesday, by phone, Sheriff Gary Philp said the vast majority of his personnel, such as those deputies working out of the Eureka main station, do not have overnight vehicle use. The ones who do include detectives, who frequently are the first called out to major crime scenes (which often happen in the early morning or late night); deputies in specialty positions such as search and rescue; and outlying officers whose substations are not staffed 24 hours.
"It's more important for them to get to the scene instantly," Philp said. "And it saves us mileage and is more cost-efficient for us. And the minute they leave their house, they're on duty, so their service is more responsive to the community."
Philp said the Hoopa substation is not staffed 24 hours, so on-call deputies work from home after hours. There's no secure facility to park off-duty deputies' vehicles -- and, besides, said Philp, nobody's truly "off duty" in Hoopa.
"If you're at home, and you have a car, and you get a call that one of your guys needs help, you're going to go out even if you're not 'on call,'" Philp said. It's either that or wait for someone from Eureka to drive up, he added.
It's the same story with the Garberville station, he said. And McKinleyville's deputies also used to work from home after hours. But they recently got a new substation, staffed 24 hours every day and with a secured parking facility, so that's why those eight deputies no longer need to bring their vehicles home at night, said Philp.
And Steve Knight? Well, said Philp, Knight's assignment has changed. He's now one of the lieutenants who take turns as the on-duty administrator in the after hours -- someone who can make decisions on behalf of the sheriff when the sheriff isn't available. But, Philp added, the three animal control officers do take their vehicles home because their work is spread throughout the entire county -- in the end, it saves time and money to let them just leave from home.
Hulsey, the airport manager, said by e-mail Tuesday afternoon that, first of all, the Public Works-Aviation Division is an enterprise account and does not receive funds from the county general fund; airport revenues come from the airport. Second, she said she's in charge of the county's six airports, from Arcata to Dinsmore, 24/7, every day of the year. Her vehicle has emergency response equipment -- her time and vehicle were in high demand, for instance, after the earthquake last year, as she checked runways for damage and communicated by air-to-ground radio when the cell phone systems were overwhelmed. She also gets called out to the airport frequently in the summertime, after hours, when construction projects are underway.
The D.A.'s office wasn't able to respond in time to our request for an interview. But the request forms indicated that the personnel taking vehicles home are investigators -- criminal, child abuse and sexual assault, worker's compensation fraud, drug task force. They all noted that they have specialized equipment in their vehicles and, in most cases, that they must be able to "respond at a moment's notice." Michael Stone, for instance, a member of the drug task force, noted that much of his work occurs after hours and on weekends, and that his team is on call to help other agencies' operations.
Cheryl Dillingham, the county's new deputy CAO, said this is her first time in charge of overnight vehicle requests. She said she didn't turn down any, although she did question some requests and ask for more information.
"Doug Fini [head of the motor pool] and I reviewed the requests, and he knows where all of the vehicles go," she said. "And I discussed them with the CAO as well."
She added that the overnight vehicle is not a perk, but in fact is recorded as taxable income.