In the early 2000s, when Utah state government was falling short of tax revenues, lawmakers ordered that the state vehicle fleet be reduced in numbers and that fewer expensive 4X4s be bought.

But since then, the number of big ol' trucks in the fleet has been growing — up by 12 percent over the past four years.

And because of an odd way of managing the state's large fleet, state agencies are budgeting on what gasoline prices were 18 months ago, not what they are today.

Talk about an advantageous budgeting process — or as one legislative leader put it Tuesday, a real disconnect with the real world.

But state fleet operators are working hard to bring more efficiencies into managing the large fleet, said Margaret Chambers, director of fleet operations.

Different state departments do have to get approval of their legislative budget committees before they can buy a new 4X4 or "upgrade" from a sedan to an SUV, said Chambers. However, perhaps those budget committees don't routinely ask the tough questions on such upgrades before giving approval, she added.

Even though Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has ordered that the state must improve energy use by 20 percent over the next decade, there are still real-world issues with cars.

For example, while some may think it is smart for the state to buy hybrid cars, studies show that buying, operating and selling a Prius hybrid over 90,000 miles costs about the same as a Ford Focus subcompact (all-gasoline powered) over the same mileage.

In other instances, it does make sense to buy a hybrid, she noted.

Legislative budgeter Richard Amon said that 42 percent of the state's fleet vehicles are driven less than 625 miles a month.

There are some good reasons for such low-use. For example, a number of vehicles on college campuses are driven just around the campus.

But it may be that it is less expensive for many state employees just to drive their own cars and seek reimbursement than for their agencies to buy, maintain and fuel state vehicles.

And the state doesn't do a good job of tracking how much state employees are being paid for use of their own vehicles. For example, the state pays between 36 cents and 50 cents per mile for personal use of a car but doesn't differentiate between the rates.

Would it be cheaper to pay 36 cents a mile for a short trip with a personal vehicle, rather than take a state vehicle, or are some employees getting paid 50 cents a mile when it would be cheaper for the employee to use a state vehicle? Can't really tell under the current system, said Amon.

After the fleet department 18 months ago did an analysis of buying/cost of driving/and selling 4X4 models — which showed it made some economic sense to have such SUVs — "the bottom fell out of the SUV" used market, Chambers said.

Jonathan Ball, director of the Legislature's fiscal analysis office, said he likes the "slightly radical idea" of direct billing agencies for the use of gasoline in vehicles they use.

Now, the fleet division tries to get state employees and agencies to use cars and trucks wisely. By making those agencies responsible to pay for the gasoline they use, employees may be less willing to drive all over the place.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com