BY THE NUMBERS
East Ridge vehicles currently in operation, including 30 "special use" vehicles such as firetrucks and dump trucks.
• 1: Administration
• 1: Building/grounds
• 60: Police
• 13: Fire
• 2: Inspection
• 15: Street maintenance
• 3: Traffic control
• 12: Sanitation
• 2: Animal control
• 2: General recreation
• 2: Parks
Source: East Ridge
"Car wrangler" was not included in the job description for the East Ridge city manager when the position opened up last fall.
But rounding up city cars has become a sizable task for City Manager Tim Gobble in the past month as he and his staff tried to figure out exactly how many cars the city owns and how many are properly titled so the city can try to sell them.
Last week, the city had to apply for 11 new car titles after at least that many were discovered to be missing. But to replace the missing titles, the city will have to pay $121 to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
"We don't know what happened to them. They may be somewhere around here, but we've looked everywhere," Gobble said.
In an agenda session two months ago, Councilman Jim Bethune asked Gobble if the number of city cars could be calculated and if any retired vehicles could be put up for auction.
"We had an excess of cars that had just been sitting around," Bethune said. "Something needed to change."
When Gobble started taking inventory of the cars, the numbers startled him. According to records, the city owned 149 vehicles. East Ridge has 116 employees.
"That's a high number of cars in our fleet for a city this size," Gobble said.
When he began scrutinizing the number of city vehicles more closely, he began seeing gaps.
"There were cars with no titles and titles with no cars," he said. "So we just decided we needed to double-check all city vehicles."
In further inventory, staff members also discovered 10 titles for cars that the city no longer had. Gobble said the city is not certain what became of those cars, though it's likely they had been "junked" and used for training by emergency services.
Thirty of the city's cars had "questionable" or missing titles. Staff members found that some of the vehicles didn't have titles because they had not been paid for yet.
Other cars were donated military vehicles with no titles.
East Ridge Mayor Brent Lambert did not return calls for comment about the matter, and former Mayor Mike Steele said the missing titles were never brought to his attention during his term, which lasted from 2006 to December 2010.
"This is the first I've heard about it," Steele said Friday. "You would think there'd be something in our audit to check on that, but I never saw anything related to that during my time."
After the titles are replaced, the city hopes to sell at least 25 of the old vehicles through the Chattanooga Auto Auction on Sept. 20. Gobble hopes to net about $40,500 for the city.
The number of operational vehicles in the city now will be listed at 113. But 138 cars, including the 25 that will be auctioned, will remain insured until the end of the year as a part of the city's "fleet insurance" policy, which costs East Ridge $43,471 each year.
Gobble said the ratio of vehicles to staff members doesn't necessarily shake out to "one car for every employee" because the fleet includes everything from firetrucks to street sweepers and SWAT trucks. The police department and codes enforcement department have take-home car policies.
The city also owns at least 13 "line cars," vehicles used as backup in case of an emergency, documents show.
The city has designated $161,000 for vehicle repair and maintenance in its 2012 budget, plus an additional $15,000 for tires and tubes.
It's unclear at what point the titles disappeared. Gobble became city manager four months ago after the city forced its former manager, William Whitson, to resign in August 2010. He doesn't know if the city ever has had a consistent protocol for record-keeping on its vehicles.
Because of the mishap, East Ridge has enacted a new procedure: All titles will be locked in the vault at City Hall.
There was previously no master list for the city's vehicles, so Gobble and Camp Jordan Administrative Assistant Amanda Miller have created one, including each car's age, condition and mileage.
"We still have a few question marks," Gobble said, adding that he's located several apparently unused vehicles on city properties.
There's no set protocol for fleet management under the University of Tennessee's Municipal Technical Advisory Service, which advises small cities on government operations.
None of the 25 city cars going to auction are newer than a 1999 model. The oldest dates to 1985. One Ford pickup has accrued 314,800 miles, records show. Steele said the city has a history of getting the most out of its cars.
"We have used twine and duct tape to keep some of them together," he said. "You don't constantly want to spend taxpayer money for new cars."
Any money from next week's auction will be earmarked for the purchase of nine new vehicles on the city's wish list: eight pickup trucks and one sedan.
And when old cars are retired, Gobble insists the city needs to get them off its hands promptly.
"I'd like to do that relatively quickly and not become a storage lot," Gobble said. "It's a problem we've needed to address, and now we're addressing it."