Editor’s Note: The headline on this story has been changed from an earlier version to clarify who has benefited from the policy change. The story has been updated to reflect that the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office maintains they do not have to report use of take-home vehicles as compensation for tax purposes.
CENTENNIAL, Colo. (KDVR) — Take-home cars are a perk for lots of law enforcement agencies, just not the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.
But it was the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office that officially changed its policy just weeks after the Problem Solvers filed a public records request based on a tip from an insider who felt the policy was being ignored by dozens within the department.
Prior to March, the sheriff’s office had a 20-mile rule: Basically, take-home cars were only meant for employees who lived within 20 miles of their workplace unless the sheriff granted an exception.
An internal report conducted in September found that 31 out of 162 sheriff employees assigned take-home vehicles were commuting beyond 20 miles but still getting the free gas and maintenance associated with their take-home vehicles.
One of the biggest beneficiaries is the department’s number two person, Undersheriff Mark Nicastle. The September report obtained by the Problem Solvers shows Nicastle drives 44 miles each way from his home near Brighton to sheriff headquarters in Centennial.
If Nicastle drives 88 miles a day, five days a week for 48 weeks (a conservative estimate based on vacation and holidays), then he should rack up 21,168 miles. But sheriff records show he drove 33,091 miles over the most recent 12-month period tracked by the department.
Records also show Nicastle received $10,772 in gas over the past three years that he didn’t have to pay for.
If gas continues to sell for about $4 a gallon, Nicastle could save nearly $6,000 in gas this year based on his past usage.
Take-home car policy revised after Problem Solvers request
When the Problem Solvers asked for the department’s take-home car policy on Feb. 24, it took the Arapahoe Sheriff’s Office until March 14 to send us its policy, and what it sent was a new policy that had been revised as of March 10.
Under the new policy, employees with take-home cars now have a commuting range of 50 miles — and not just 50 miles to their workplace, but 50 miles to the Arapahoe County line from wherever they might live.
FOX31 legal analyst George Brauchler wondered if the policy change came as a result of the Problem Solvers records request.
“I mean, I can speculate that it has everything to do with the questions that you are asking and trying to figure out how do we make the math work for us,” Brauchler said.
A sheriff’s office spokesperson told the Problem Solvers the take-home car policy change was in the works months before FOX31 submitted its records request.
“It (policy change) could be a bad look, especially if it’s someone who doesn’t have duties that require them to go out to every murder scene or every sex assault on a child,” Brauchler said.
Take-home police vehicles and emergency use
Neither Sheriff Tyler Brown nor county commissioners would agree to an interview with the Problem Solvers about the new policy or the use of taxpayer funds to finance it. Instead, a county spokesperson emailed FOX31 a statement.
“The Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners supports the Sheriff Office’s ability to set its own policies regarding the use of County vehicles as part of its broader effort to attract the most qualified public safety employees and respond quickly to emergencies whenever and wherever they occur,” the statement reads.
Insiders at the sheriff’s office told the Problem Solvers it’s rare for most employees with take-home cars to respond to off-duty emergencies, and it’s practically unheard of for Nicastle.
In the past three years, the sheriff’s office said Nicastle has responded to nine incidents while in his take-home car, although they appear to mostly be traffic accidents he appears to have driven by during his commute, based on the records provided to FOX31.
“I think it’s undeniable, based on that, that it’s not used for emergency use,” Brauchler said.
Take-home cars should be taxed, but Arapahoe’s aren’t
“It is a large fringe benefit,” said Sharon Lassar, the director of the School of Accountancy at the University of Denver.
Under U.S. tax law, take-home cars are supposed to be treated as taxable compensation, although just by a token amount — $3 a day — because Lassar said the IRS hasn’t updated the regulation since 1989.
There are some exceptions, and a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office says they are not required to report the use of vehicles that meet the definition of “qualified nonpersonal use vehicles” as compensation.
The tax-free perk came as a big surprise to Brauchler, a former district attorney, who said when he was the elected DA, his office made changes to its take-home car policy after a review and he always reported his take-home car as compensation for tax purposes.
“My money guy in the office came to me early on and said, ‘Dude, this is compensation. It’s got to be reported,'” Brauchler said.
Saving money on both gas and tolls
“The use of a company car when you don’t really need to use the company car to commute back and forth to work — that’s a nice benefit,” said Lassar, who added the ability to get E-470 tolls waived is “an even nicer benefit.”
Some sheriff employees are saving on both gas and tolls. The undersheriff would normally spend $19.40 a day if he had a toll tag to travel his normal commute from Adams County to sheriff headquarters in Centennial.
But the sheriff’s office is allowed to register Nicastle’s unmarked car as an “emergency vehicle” with the E-470 Public Highway Authority because it’s equipped with lights, a siren and a radio, which allows for the waiving of any tolls.
If Nicastle were to drive toll roads every weekday for a year, he could save nearly $5,000 in tolls.
And now that the new allowed driving distance is 50 miles to the county line, Sheriff Brown has ensured all of his employees with take-home cars meet policy.
“If all this is, is hey, you get to have this car to drive this car to and from work, and everywhere else your life takes you, I do think that’s a question for the taxpayers,” Brauchler said.
A spokesman for the sheriff told the Problem Solvers the take-home car policy was expanded to 50 miles because urban sprawl has caused more employees to live farther away from work, and a county spokesperson said the policy helps recruit deputies at a time when law enforcement is having trouble attracting new deputies.
Undersheriff Nicastle declined to speak to FOX31 when the Problem Solvers made a request through a sheriff’s office spokesperson.
How other law enforcement agencies handle take-home vehicles
FOX31 reached out to other departments to find out what their take-home car policy is.
The Adams County Sheriff’s Office has 629 employees, and 75 are granted take-home cars. The policy covers gas for employees, as long as their commute isn’t more than 60 minutes.
Most agencies based their policy on miles instead of commuting time.
The Denver Police Department has 543 assigned take-home cars out of a total staff of 1,818 staff members. Vehicles are generally not supposed to be driven more than 25 miles to reach work.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has assigned 107 unmarked take-home units for 664 employees. There is no mileage limit for how far staffers can commute in a take-home car.
The Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office policy states employees assigned a take-home vehicle must reimburse the sheriff’s office for any use of mileage beyond a 20-mile radius of their primary work location. Jefferson County provides take-home cars to 39 employees out of an authorized staff of 820 people.
The Arapahoe County Sheriff’s office provides take-home cars to 162 of its 827 employees.