When there’s an emergency on a Columbus roadway, the Columbus Traffic Enforcement Response Team is called to manage traffic flow.
The three-member volunteer team is available 24/7 in case of an emergency.
"They're emergency responders. When they're called out in the middle of the night, they need to be there as quickly as possible to help Columbus police close down a road or provide maintenance of traffic control,” said Patricia Austin, Columbus Department of Public Service.
For that reason, each member is assigned a city pick-up truck that is loaded with gear, including traffic cones, and a pop up directional sign.
TERT members, who volunteer for the extra TERT duties, drive the trucks everywhere they go. When they're not on emergencies, two of them perform traffic maintenance duties citywide and the third is a plan reviewer.
Watchdog 10 got a tip questioning the way TERT operates.
Questions were asked including: “How often are they called out? How much tax money is spent gassing up the take-home trucks? And is this a good use of your tax dollars?"
Watchdog 10 asked for the TERT emergency callout records and mileage since 2009.
What the city handed over was incomplete and in some instances, non-existent.
Watchdog 10 asked Austin how many times TERT was called out.
“We don't keep that data unfortunately. We don't keep it that way. We have started. Since you have asked the questions, we do now have started keeping that data,” said Austin.
Based on the limited records provided to Watchdog 10, just 17 callouts could be documented during the overnight hours or on weekends between March and September this year.
But the workers are still driving the trucks every day, including to their homes.
One worker commutes 32 miles daily from his home in Powell. A second worker commutes 42 miles from Johnstown. The third drives a 66- mile round trip from Baltimore.
Watchdog 10 analysis shows the men put a lot more miles on their trucks commuting, than they do working.
One employee logged 3,600 miles for the city, but his commute adds up to nearly twice that at more than 7,100 miles.
Another worker drove 3,200 miles on the job and 5,700 more miles commuting.
The third worker didn't keep any mileage records.
"If you do the math, you add up their gas to go back and forth to work for a year and it's a little under $12,000 for gas to go back and forth to work. That saves us from having to have people on in the evening, 24 hours to provide this service. So we really look at it as a cost savings,” said Austin.
A fleet management consultant told Watchdog 10 that he’s critical of city take-home vehicles.
"To take it home every single day, by every single person, the accumulated commuting miles is excessive, and it's a waste of money. The problem of course is that it's a perk,” said John Dolce.
The city doesn't see it that way.
“I will tell you none of them who take those vehicles home consider it a perk. They take this job very seriously, and it’s part of the tools they use to do their job,” said Austin.
Watchdog 10 showed that in at least one instance, Columbus police were unable to reach anybody from TERT to respond to an overnight crash. They called ODOT traffic crews instead.
“These people do this on their own time. It's not their job duty to be available 24 hours a day. That's why there's three people on the call-in list. Yes, occasionally, for some reason or another, we can't reach those people,” said Austin.
Still, the city believes in the three-member TERT team and said it is around to stay.
“Providing 24 hour maintenance traffic control is a priority for us, and it's something we do economically by having these people have their vehicles available to them and they can get in their vehicles and serve that need,” added Austin.
Since Watchdog 10 began its inquires, city officials have asked TERT drivers to keep better records of their time.
Since then, crews have been called in to just five crash scenes on weekends or overnights.
Dolce suggested the crews park their city trucks at satellite lots at the end of each workday and drive their own cars to and from that location.
The city said they want the crews to get to crash scenes fast and that would hold them up.
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