Legislators question state trooper vehicle maintenance practices

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MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) -  Budget hearings last week brought a number of state agencies before Alabama lawmakers as they made their case for more money from the general fund.

Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) Secretary Spencer Collier went before a legislative committee on January 14 requesting more than $20 million for the next fiscal year.

"It came up in those hearings that our state troopers were driving from north Alabama, Dothan, or Mobile to Montgomery just to get an oil change in one of their trooper vehicles," said Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur).

It was news to Orr, but Collier tells WHNT News 19 it's not happening anymore.

In a statement, Collier says the practice ended January 1, 2015, when law enforcement consolidated under ALEA.  He adds that he got rid of a number of inefficient practices.

"During last week’s budget hearing, I gave an example – as a normal practice," said Collier in the statement. "The Department of Public Safety required that State Troopers travel to Montgomery or other large posts with an auto shop for routine maintenance such as an oil change.  This practice was completely inefficient and wasted valuable state resources.”

Now, ALEA officials explain, troopers use Wright Express cards to have their maintenance performed in the area they are assigned.

"It just did not make any business sense to have troopers or any employee of ALEA drive to Montgomery when they could have their vehicle serviced in their local area," explained Col. John E. Richardson, director of public safety, on why they changed their policy, calling it inefficient.

"This was for oil changes," stressed Senator Orr. He went on to explain how the longtime practice is admittedly a small problem, but says it points out a bigger problem in the middle of budget crisis.

"That's what infuriated, quite frankly, a lot of legislators to see that kind of culture still existing when we've had such a problem in our general fund of getting adequate resources to our agencies."

Rep. Mike Ball (R-Huntsville) is a former state trooper.  He is all too familiar with road tripping for regular maintenance.  He calls it "wasteful."

"It would show you saved money on your vehicle costs.  But, what it doesn't factor is the cost of taking that trooper off the road," said Rep. Ball.

Collier said the consolidation of law enforcement agencies under ALEA has proven to be efficient. But, he added, a problem with the consolidation is it protects jobs that are no longer needed.

Collier says Rep. Ball sponsored Act 2013-67 and Sen. Orr voted on it.  He says the act "protected the job status/classification of all persons employed by a legacy agency."

Collier goes on to say the act guards the Montgomery mechanics from termination.  Instead, they would be phased out through attrition (resignation or retirement) and not be replaced going forward.

"Wouldn't you reassign that person and give them something else to do," questioned Orr. "Perhaps a lateral shift to the Department of Corrections or some other state agency that might need someone, a mechanic type job?"

There's discrepancy between Sen. Orr and Secretary Collier.  Sen. Orr says he and other legislators heard the same message from Secretary Collier - that the practice was admittedly inefficient but was still changing and not completely in the past.

In a written statement to WHNT News 19, Secretary Collier maintains the ongoing evolution of the agency, but says Senator Orr's comment that the vehicle maintenance practice is still in effect is untrue.

"I may not always agree with Senator Orr, but I have always respected him. However, his accusations are flat out wrong.  It is my sincere hope that he misunderstood the dialogue and I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Anything other than that is below the integrity of the office he holds."

Lawmakers return to Montgomery for the 2016 legislative session on February 2.