California lawmakers admonish department managers over vehicle, other expenses

Lawmakers admonished state administrators Wednesday for expenditures such as furnishings costing up to $7,000 per employee, an airplane for Caltrans inspectors valued at nearly $1 million, a $429,000 boat and 1,300 cars, motorcycles and trucks costing $34 million.

“I find these expenditures to be an insult and very disrespectful to every furloughed state employee, to every taxpayer who has been working very hard to make ends meet, who is driving an old car on its last legs when this state chooses not to do the same,” said Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), vice chairwoman of the committee investigating the spending.

Department managers said they had tried to reduce expenses, but legislators challenged more than $75 million spent on new vehicles, furniture and hotel meeting rooms last year despite the budget crisis.

A parade of bureaucrats was summoned Wednesday before the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review to be grilled about such spending.

Dennis Clear, a legislative coordinator for the Department of Motor Vehicles, said the $3.6 million spent by his agency on furniture and cubicles helped save money because the agency took over work done by a private contractor in one case and consolidated three telephone call centers into one in another case.

However, lawmakers questioned the $1.4 million the DMV reportedly spent on modular furnishings for the Fresno call center, where 205 people are employed, noting that the sum breaks down to $7,000 per work station. “I just don’t think it passes the smell test with everything we are going through right now,” said Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher (R-San Diego).

DMV spokesman Michael Marando said about $5,000 went into each cubicle and the rest into a break room, two training rooms, cabinets and other office equipment as well as wiring for a phone system.

The state bought 1,300 vehicles last year, but that was fewer than the 3,500 purchased the year before, officials said. The total for last year does not include $17 million for new vehicles for the California Highway Patrol, which was exempted from an order by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that non-essential purchasing be reduced.

The $968,000 airplane was for use by California Department of Transportation employees who inspect proposed school sites and the dozens of airports in the state, according to Richard Harmon, an assistant deputy director with the agency.

Harmon said the plane probably would not be delivered until next year, and payments would be spread out over 10 years.