While most of state government is buying fewer vehicles because of budget cuts, Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer has spent about $445,000 on 19 new vehicles for his department this year, including a $35,340 Chevy Suburban for his own use.
Farmer drove his previous state vehicle for 30 months, so he was due for a replacement in January, said spokesman Bill Clary.
"The commissioner uses it to travel around the state for his appearances and meetings," Clary said. "He also gets to use it to travel from home to work as part of his benefits package."
A government watchdog this week said Farmer is wasting money.
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"Most Kentuckians are not trading in their vehicles after two years. They're holding onto what they have. The state government should be doing the same at a minimum," said Jim Waters, vice president of the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Bowling Green. (A declared Republican candidate for governor, Louisville businessman Phil Moffett, has been a board member at Waters' think tank.)
In 2007, Farmer told the Agriculture Department to take control of its 178 vehicles, removing them from the state vehicle fleet that's managed by the Finance and Administration Cabinet, Clary said.
On Farmer's watch, the department's fleet has grown to 206 vehicles — it plans to auction 18 next month — and it regularly replaces vehicles while they're still low on mileage, Clary said. A recent inventory of the department's vehicles, mostly Chevy and Ford trucks and sport utility vehicles, shows that all but three are 4 years old or newer. About two-thirds have fewer than 50,000 miles.
"If we don't do it that way, you're going to pay a whole lot more on maintenance costs, and you're going to make a lot less back on the resale," Clary said. "We think we're doing a good job for the commonwealth, saving money on good fleet maintenance."
By contrast, Gov. Steve Beshear has cut the state vehicle fleet by 5 percent since 2008 and ordered state agencies to use the remaining vehicles for as long as possible before replacing them, said Cindy Lanham, spokeswoman for the Finance and Administration Cabinet.
Half of the state fleet's 4,639 vehicles are at least 5 years old, have more than 100,000 miles, or both, Lanham said. One in three is at least 7 years old, has more than 140,000 miles, or both. The state operates its own garage to perform maintenance.
So far this year, the Beshear administration has spent $1.4 million to replace 80 vehicles, or less than 2 percent of the state fleet. By comparison, Farmer has replaced more than 10 percent of his fleet.
"We have to get more out of them because we've slowed down our purchases tremendously," said Forrest Banta, director of the state's Division of Fleet Management. "There just hasn't been money to buy new ones."
Clary said the Agriculture Department's vehicle purchases this year were budgeted using state and federal funds. Apart from the cost of buying vehicles, the department spent $466,530 in fiscal year 2009 for motor fuel, $86,857 for repairs and $111,472 for the two employees charged with managing its separate fleet, according to internal documents.
The Agriculture Department is budgeted to spend more than $30 million overall this year. It's responsible for a variety of duties, including agriculture marketing, livestock shows, consumer and environmental inspections and the Office of State Veterinarian.
Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball star, is finishing his second term as agriculture commissioner. He's considered a possible Republican candidate next year for lieutenant governor, running on a slate with state Senate President David Williams, R-Burkesville, to challenge Beshear. The men have not yet announced their plans.