Jul. 21--Out of a converted gas station south of the Trinity River, 10 Dallas County employees are responsible for the regular upkeep and repair of a 900-vehicle fleet.
     The Automotive Service Center also provides discounted fuel to county vehicles. But as gas prices soar, the county auto shop continues to have problems keeping track of fuel purchases as well as parts and equipment, according to county audits.
     The small service center does the best it can with the resources it has, say county officials who are reluctant to spend money to improve operations. But auditor reports reveal sloppy recordkeeping and inefficiency.
     The shop, according to audits, mismanaged the issuance of fuel credit cards to county departments a few years ago. A lack of security led to several break-ins during which supplies were stolen.
     But the shop got the most attention recently for its vehicle emissions inspections.
     Shop foreman Rodney Gregory retired in March after two of his employees were accused of putting illegal vehicle inspection stickers on county vehicles. The incident was discovered less than two weeks before the announcement of a major effort to crack down on such practices.
     One employee was fired while Mr. Gregory and another employee received written reprimands.
     It was an embarrassment to County Judge Jim Foster, who spearheaded the creation of the county's new clean air emissions task force and made cracking down on illegal vehicle inspections the cornerstone of its mission.
     Allen Clemson, the Commissioners Court administrator, said there is no evidence of fraud or theft at the shop, just poor recordkeeping. And he said the fuel discrepancies are relatively small.
     The inventories have been off by more than $22,000 and at least 4,500 gallons of fuel since 2003, according to audits.
     "While improvement has been noted, procedural changes regarding inventory control are needed," the auditor concluded in a report released in February.
     The auto shop uses handwritten fuel tickets to keep track of employee gas usage rather than an automated system using fuel cards.
     As a result, it has problems keeping track of fuel because employees either are not properly filling out gas tickets or turning them in months late.
     And departments don't require their employees to fill out fuel tickets or maintain fuel logs, according to the auditor.
     Shop employees have had to call some departments to match gas tickets with employees. Since 2003, the auditor's office has recommended the shop use fuel cards to avoid such problems.
     "Fuel cards would aid in preventing unauthorized pumping of gasoline from the manually operated pumps," the auditor's office said in its recent report.
     Because of rising gas prices and a growing fleet, the county's fuel costs have soared 160 percent over the past four fiscal years, from $811,819 in 2005 to a projected $2.1 million this year.
     Mr. Clemson said it's not cost-effective to spend thousands of dollars on a card reader system to avoid relatively small inventory discrepancies.
     "The auditors want you to account for every penny. But if the devices you put in place cost more than the pennies, do you do it?" he asked. "We can't do everything."
     Commissioner John Wiley Price said the audits didn't concern him considering the volume of supplies "going through there." He said the county has bigger concerns this year, such as the jails and a $34 million budget deficit. He said the service center is managed well for an operation of its size.
     Employees are required to fuel up at the service center whenever practical. If not, they must use Fuelman credit cards that offer a savings of 20 cents per gallon.
     In the past, employees in certain departments have used other credit cards to buy gas. But county officials had to crack down on that program because of a lack of oversight from the service center.
     The shop issued the cards to the Dallas County Sheriff's Department, auto theft task force, juvenile department and fire marshal's office. Auditors examined 1,652 transactions in 2004 and concluded that the shop had established 12 fuel credit accounts "without regard to cost" and without proper controls to monitor their use.
     No spending reviews were done, the report said, and the service center didn't take advantage of volume discounts. Now, employees can use the cards only when traveling on official business outside the county.
     Lack of security at the service center led to several break-ins last August and September, prompting the county to install new gates and razor wire atop the perimeter fence. Audits said the burglaries may have been responsible for missing batteries, alternators and "various fluids."
     Other security problems were noted in 2003 when an audit said county vehicles at the shop were left unlocked 24 hours a day, creating a theft risk.

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