W.Va.’s courtesy patrol

The following editorial appeared in the Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, on June 9:

West Virginia’s Courtesy Patrol has provided assistance to thousands of motorists during its existence over a good part of the last two decades. But a new report confirms recent misgivings about the program and gives new impetus for the need to study different options.

Courtesy Patrol drivers patrol 25 routes representing more than 800 miles around the state for 16 hours a day each day of the year. It employs about 80 drivers and has assisted about 300,000 vehicles from 1998 to earlier this year, helping motorists who have experienced anything from a blown tire to an accident by staying at the scene and getting the proper authorities to respond.

But in this year’s legislative session, there was a move to eliminate the service altogether, thus saving the state about $4 million per year. That measure failed, but a new legislative audit released Sunday suggests that the state can still provide the services, but under a different setup that will save the state money.

Since 1998, the Courtesy Patrol has been operated by a non-profit group called Citizens Conservation Corps of West Virginia. In the budget year that concludes at the end of this month, the Division of Highways paid CCCWV nearly $3.2 million to oversee the program.

The new legislative audit found that savings could amount to $1.2 million a year if the Division of Highways operated the Courtesy Patrol internally and paid wages and benefits directly to drivers, supervisors and dispatchers.

It’s not difficult to see where some of those savings could occur. In 2014, when the state extended its contract with CCCWV, five executives of the agency had combined salaries in excess of $500,000.

The audit cited other issues, too. It questioned whether it’s legal for the Division of Highways to provide vehicles to the Courtesy Patrol because legislative rules forbid non-state employees from driving state vehicles, the Gazette reported. The audit also suggested that some overpayments to CCCWV occurred.

On the flip side, there may be some missed opportunities to save even more money. The audit noted that some states find corporate sponsors to help pay for similar services, although that would require a change in state law for West Virginia to do. Other options could be to reduce the time each day the patrols are in effect. That could make sense, since the demand for assistance has dropped about 30 percent in the past eight years.

Officials with CCCWV dispute the amount of savings listed in the legislative audit, and the audit’s recommendation for further study should be pursued to get a more solid handle on what the potential savings could be if the Division of Highways took over operations.

The audit’s findings, as well as the questions over the relatively high pay for CCCWV officials, provide plenty of justification for strong consideration of an alternative structure for the Courtesy Patrol.

Online: http://www.herald-dispatch.com

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