A couple of Walker County residents are revved up that the government paid for more than $7,000 in repairs to the sole commissioner’s personal vehicle.

Commissioner Shannon Whitfield, in a May 27 Facebook post, explained that due to the county’s dire financial straits and lack of vehicles to serve all the employees who needed one when he took office in January 2017, he utilized his personal vehicle for 34 months.

Whitfield reassigned the county-owned 2012 Ford Explorer used by his predecessor to Planning Director David Brown who otherwise would not have had one to drive for official county business, explained Joe Legge, Walker County public relations director.

Whitfield said he drove his 2014 GMC Yukon more than 50,000 miles in a little over two years and began experiencing mechanical issues in March 2019.

“Up to this point, I had covered all service and maintenance costs for this vehicle out of my own pocket,” he wrote.

The work order shows the repairs included removing cylinder heads for repair and replacing the camshaft, lifters, intake manifold, water pump, thermostat, water inlet and all gaskets and seals, as well as replacing the front and rear brakes. The parts and labor cost for the repair totaled $2,527.83.

When the repairs failed in September 2019, he was advised to install a remanufactured engine, he posted. He authorized the engine installation, which cost $4,562.37 for parts and labor.

The next month the commissioner authorized the purchase of three pickup trucks with government contract pricing, including one for the commissioner’s use.

“After the purchase of the county vehicle, I was able to bring my personal vehicle back home,” he posted. Whitfield still owns the Yukon, which is used for personal use now, Legge explained.

Public weighs in

Whitfield wrote that he was explaining the repairs because his office had received an open records request related to them sparking more than 70 responses praising his job performance, fiscal conservatism and generosity in using his own vehicle to delay purchasing another one. A few responses were critical of the decision — either questioning the legality of the actions or prompting questions of transparency and the perception of an ethical lapse.

Rick Tallent posited that this situation “brings questions of how a minor issue can become a major legal one.”

Tallent asked about business versus personal use of the vehicle and the vehicle’s condition and existing mileage when the commissioner began using it for county business, including maintenance records. He also queried whether the county provided gasoline and oil for the vehicle, whether the county reimbursed mileage and whether Whitfield kept a log documenting mileage, purpose and destination when on county business.

“These are all reasonable questions that would be asked in a tax audit and should be available for open records to prove nothing was done improperly, and I am making the assumption nothing improper was done,” he wrote.

He urged the commissioner to release the information to be transparent, to answer the questions and “to avoid ‘the appearance of evil.’”

The commissioner never requested reimbursement for mileage or maintenance for use of his personal vehicle for county business, Legge explained.

John Joe, who described himself as “a fan” of the commissioner, cited the repairs as “an example of improper use of tax payer funds. There are both generally accepted accounting rules and state laws that specify how personal use of a vehicle should be treated when used for official business.”

“That is that you should submit a mileage form and seek reimbursement for miles (generally at the IRS guidance rate) that is designed to cover both fuel and maintenance. You should never use government funds / resources for fuel or maintenance of a personal vehicle.

“What share of the cost did you share for the personal miles to replace that engine and do maintenance? Did you deduct mileage on your tax returns for any official use? If so, you already received the tax benefits for maintenance on those miles and not entitled to any further compensation.

“Good intentions or not... sounds like you should delete this post and consult with an attorney,” John Joe wrote.

According to the State of Georgia Statewide Accounting Policy & Procedure, “While driving your personal vehicle on State business, the State provides full liability coverage and personal immunity for the employee for damages and injuries the employee may cause to others. The State does not provide coverage for damages to your personal vehicle. Cost of repairs to a personal vehicle, whether or not they result from the traveler’s acts, are not reimbursable.”

“The commissioner provided his own full coverage insurance out of pocket while using his personal vehicle for county business,” Legge said. “The county’s business auto policy also has non-owned and hired auto liability coverage.”

“Commissioner, You are doing a great job and we appreciate your hard work. The County should reimburse you at 55 cents per business mile instead of just repairs to your engine,” posted Keith Wilson.

When asked if Whitfield asked the county finance officer or county attorney whether the use of the funds for these repairs was ill-advised, Legge said the commissioner did not.

Catherine Edgemon is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga., and the Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga.

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