Jerry Robinson tows away one of East Ridge's "retired" cars that the city has been accumulating over the last few years behind the East Ridge Museum and Archive to take it to an auction on Sept. 20. Around 25 cars have been deemed unusable and some are missing titles. Robinson spent most of the day moving the cars from the lot to the auction house.Photo by Jenna Walker.
As East Ridge officials finish replacing missing titles for 14 city-owned vehicles, they are faced with an inverse problem: A list of titles for missing cars.
East Ridge City Manager Tim Gobble calls it the “mystery list.” The city has records for at least 15 cars it owns but can’t find.
“They could have been scrapped or sold, but we just don’t know. One of these cars dates back to 1973,” said Gobble, who became city manager in April. “Either records were kept over the years and they’ve since been lost, or the city just failed to keep good records. ... Enough time has lapsed that we may not get a definitive answer in each case.”
Gobble said there’s “no indication” that any city employee benefited from the vehicle disposal. Gobble has spent more than two months trying to straighten out records on the city fleet along with a specially appointed “car czar,” city staffer Amanda Miller.
First came the cars without titles.
At the beginning of September, the city applied for 11 car titles from the state after at least that many couldn’t be found. Ten titles have since been obtained.
The city isn’t sure whether it has full ownership of three police motorcycles obtained in a lease-purchase from a Knoxville dealership that went out of business several years ago.
Meanwhile, Gobble found documents for 35 cars no longer in city hands.
He and Miller have whittled that list down, finding state documents and other reports that showed at least 20 of the cars were either scrapped or sold at auction. Those included six that wrecking company Broome Automotive claimed it helped dispose of under authorization from Public Safety Director Eddie Phillips, Gobble said.
Phillips could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The city did not receive payment for the scrapped cars and kept no record of their disposal.
“Apparently [the company] didn’t charge the city the tow bills — and whatever they could scrap the cars for they kept,” Gobble said.
Buddy Broome, owner of the wrecking company, said his cost was greater than he got out of the cars’ sale.
“I basically just did it as a favor,” he said.
Lawyers with the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury said East Ridge’s charter is silent on disposal of public property.
“There’s really nothing that speaks to who has the authority to oversee that and what proper protocol is,” spokesman Blake Fontenay said.
Over the last two weeks, the city sold 21 cars at the Chattanooga Auto Auction, netting $15,400.
The city now lists 113 operational vehicles. But 138 cars, including the 21 that were auctioned, will remain insured until March through the city’s fleet insurance policy, which costs $43,471 each year.
East Ridge has enacted a new procedure for fleet management. All titles are locked in the vault at City Hall. As vehicles are disposed of, a master list will be updated and files phased out.
“From this point on we’re not going to dispose of any vehicle until the city manager authorizes and we have documentation,” Gobble said.