Pulaski Council again grapples with take home vehicles, tobacco use in town vehicles and VuhVanagon

Pulaski Town Council grappled again Tuesday with three old issues – take home vehicles, tobacco use in town vehicles and VuhVanagon.

During Tuesday’s work session, council all but resolved the tobacco issue.  However, the other two remain unsolved.

Most of Tuesday’s discussion centered around take home vehicles.

In recent months, council has heard from at least one citizen questioning the practice of town employees – especially police officers – driving police cars to and from home and work. A couple members of council said Tuesday they hear more from citizens about the issue than anything else, and have for some time.

In the past, the town has allowed employees subject to call back to take home a vehicle if they reside within a 15.8-mile radius of town, and within a 45-minute response time.

However, Town Manager Shawn Utt told council he had allowed four employees to drive town vehicles beyond the 15.8-mile radius as part of a “pilot program” to gauge the overall costs related to expanding to a “response time limit” vs. a “distance limit.”

Three of the four employees are police officers and one is in administration. One of the police officers resides in Woodlawn, while the other two live in Christiansburg. The administration employee also lives in Christiansburg.

The amount of miles being driven by town vehicles irked at least two members of council.

“How in the world can we justify to citizens how one of our vehicles is being driven to Woodlawn 19,136 miles a year on non-town business,” asked councilman Jamie Radcliffe.

Especially, he said, during the last four or five years when taxes have been increased.

Radcliffe said, according to mileage information presented by Utt, town vehicles are being driven outside Pulaski County on non-town business to the tune of 69,732 miles.

“How can we justify this,” he asked again.

Councilman Joseph Goodman echoed Radcliffe’s sentiments.

“In talking with members of this council I think what I’ve been hearing is we don’t want town vehicles leaving Pulaski County without there being a business need for it – like going to a conference or driving someone to the appropriate hospital,” Goodman said.

And, he added, in situations where it is justified Goodman said permission from council should have to be gained.

Radcliffe said councilmembers cannot justify to citizens how an employee can drive a town vehicle 19,136 miles in the course of a year on non-town business.

“We cannot explain that to these people who get these $90 a month water bills and taxes,” Radcliffe said. “If we’re ever going to get our budget in line, when do we start?”

Goodman said citizens who see town vehicles outside the town limits might have questions. “But if they see them outside the county, they go – to be blunt – ‘what the hell are you people doing,’” he exclaimed.

“For as long as I’ve set here around this table, it’s the thing I’ve heard the most about. Since I first ran for council in 2010, it’s what I’ve heard the most about. ‘Why do you guys (council) have police vehicles at the mall in Christiansburg,’ people ask. Other than water bills it’s the complaint I hear the most about,” stated Goodman.

Police Chief Gary Roche, speaking in defense of the practice, said the problem lies with how often police officers are called back to work.

“They’re called back so much that we’re at a serious business issue if we can’t bring them back,” Roche said.

Currently, 24 police vehicles are being driven home and back by officers. All the officers live in the county except for the three in Woodlawn and Christiansburg, one in Staffordsville (Giles County), and one in Radford.

Five Public Works vehicles are taken home, with three going to Pulaski residences, one to Dublin and one to Hiwassee.

One engineering vehicle and two fire department vehicles are driven home, all in Pulaski.

Two administrative vehicles are driven home – one in Pulaski and the other in Christiansburg.

In the end, councilman David Clark suggested council didn’t have enough information to make a decision or set a policy Tuesday.

“One of the dangers for us on town council is making a decision on things we don’t know enough about to be 100 percent certain we’re doing the right thing,” Clark said.

“We’ve got to do something to fix this, however, and do it sooner not later,” he added.

Roche pointed out that several employees have bought homes in areas based on the 15.8-mile radius, and changing that would be unfair to them.

Goodman said that any change in policy would likely have to include some sort of “grandfathering” for those employees. “Then we’ll have to look at different options and pick one,” he said.

Council will re-visit the issue with more data from staff.

Council quickly approved – on a 5-1 vote – changes in the town’s vehicle use policy pertaining to smoking and tobacco use that council believes will likely result in phasing out tobacco use in town vehicles totally in four to five years.

Changes involve making those vehicles purchased after Jan. 1, 2018 to be considered tobacco free. Those purchased after Jan. 1, 2013 and where regular use of tobacco products have not occurred will also be considered tobacco free.

Vehicles purchased before Jan. 1, 2013, or those purchased afterwards and the regular use of tobacco products have occurred will not be considered “non-smoking vehicles.”

Clark said the changes will result in all town property effectively becoming smoke free in four to five years.

Only Radcliffe voted against the proposed changes.

Vice Mayor Greg East expressed concerns over VuhVanagon – the Volkswagen van lot along Lee Highway leading into downtown.

East said the issue has lingered since first emerging in 2009.  While he said some progress has apparently been made over the past 18 months, he is concerned about possible environmental issues and any liability the town could face in the future from the issue.

“We still have the potential for seepage from the 300 to 400 vehicles parked at the site.  I want to make sure we’ve got a good understanding with DEQ (state Department of Environmental Quality) and that they bless all the plans,” East said.

“I’m starting to feel like maybe we’re trying to accommodate what has been illegal for over a decade or better, and that is a junkyard. It’s in violation of state law and in violation of local code,” he continued.

“I want to make sure we don’t’ end up kicking ourselves or tripping ourselves without having fully vetted every angle.  My biggest concern is what contamination (from vehicle fluids) is there and what could be there moving forward – and any potential liability,” East said.

Town Engineer Bill Pedigo said he had been in contact with DEQ, and that the owner of VuhVanagon has re-submitted plans and they are being reviewed.

“He’s addressed all the issues we had,” Pedigo stated.

“All the vehicles are supposed to have been drained of all fluids,” Pedigo noted.