GPS technology navigating to savings, or a waste of money?

Animal control officer Anthony Maxwell once relied on a weathered blue binder of maps to navigate through a day of picking up stray cats, patrolling parks for loose dogs and investigating cruelty reports.

Now, a GPS device on the dashboard of his Baltimore County van alerts him to his next task. When a dead deer in Parkville needs to get picked up, Maxwell gets turn-by-turn directions and knows just when he'll be there — in this case, the trip will take 9 minutes, 44 seconds from Towson.

Baltimore County just finished installing GPS technology in more than 900 government vehicles. The devices are pricey, but officials say they will save taxpayer dollars in fuel costs — about $100,000 annually — and are cutting wasted time for everyone from IT technicians to inspectors.

But the system also has sparked criticism. Some county employee unions say the move smacks of "Big Brother" monitoring, and some industry experts say the technology isn't always worth the cost.

"For a lot of the types of vehicles in a typical city or county fleet, GPS solutions have not been that cost-effective so far," said Paul Lauria, president of Mercury Associates, a fleet management consulting company based in Gaithersburg.

The GPS industry for government fleets is booming nationwide as local agencies grapple with rising gasoline costs and environmental concerns. In this region, the county joins localities including Baltimore City and Howard County in turning to a technology widely used in some private industries.

"Basically, we've become very similar to UPS," said Baltimore County office of information technology director Rob Stradling, referring to the iconic delivery service. "We've got the most refined routes. We get the most work done."

The county paid Georgia-based NexTraq about $100,000 in startup costs for the system and is paying a $24,000 monthly fee — $288,000 a year.

County vehicles drove 613,737 miles in October 2011, compared with 493,463 this October, officials say. They say that will translate to a savings of $8,300 a month in fuel, or about $100,000 a year. While that is less than the yearly cost of the program, Stradling says the county expects the savings to grow, and to include gains in productivity as well as a reduction in wear and tear of vehicles.

"I believe we're going be able to refine it and make it work even better," he said.

Lauria, whose company's clients include Baltimore City and Annapolis, contends that users of GPS for fleets often get "the biggest return on [their] investment in the early stages."

GPS can improve driver behavior and find the most efficient routes, but "those kinds of insights are going to be gained pretty quickly when you first start using this technology," Lauria said.

He believes the technology makes the most sense for large, expensive vehicles that are "mission critical," such as snowplows, buses, and ambulances.

Employee unions, meanwhile, say they are watching to make sure the tracking system isn't used to violate workers' rights. And they, too, question whether the costs are worth it.

"I think the cost of the system far outweighs any savings in fuel," said Norman Anderson, president of AFSCME Local 921, which represents employees including heavy-equipment operators and truck drivers.

The county's emergency vehicles have had GPS for years, but the technology is new for many employees. Managers get alerts when workers go 12 mph or more over the speed limit, when they idle in a running vehicle or linger at a site too long, and when they cross county lines.

The speed-tracking is one of employees' biggest complaints about the GPS program, Anderson said. "Most people won't admit it, but if you go 55 [mph] on the Beltway, you'll get run over."

Anderson said he has no issue with tracking county vehicles, saying it can provide accountability. Some employees, though, feel the system is "just another form of Big Brother," he said.

If a worker is out on assignment, the county "can tell whether you were in front of the house, behind the house," Anderson said. "To some, that's disturbing."

Baltimore County started using GPS four years ago for its public works department. Over the summer, officials kicked the program into high gear, Stradling said.

The county also has a contract with Xora Inc., a California-based mobile technology company, which provides cell-phone GPS applications for county social workers. That program cost $7,600 to start up, plus $8,000 in monthly costs. The program started for safety reasons, to help track social workers who may walk into dangerous situations, he said.

Rising fuel costs and environmental requirements are driving public agencies' interest in GPS, said James Wright, president and CEO of Fleet Counselor Services, an Arizona consulting company that works with government clients.

"When this first started a couple years ago, the general thought was they wanted to keep track of their employees to monitor their productivity, especially with things like plowing snow, street-sweeping, household refuse pickup — where there's a planned route," Wright said. "Now, it's blossomed into reducing fuel consumption, monitoring idle time, on top of improving productivity."

NexTraq, the county's vendor, works with private companies including construction, distribution and landscaping firms, said Steve Pitsos, vice president of operations for the firm. It's seeing growing interest from the public sector, including local governments, school districts and police departments. Baltimore County is NexTraq's biggest government client.

"For them, it's all about accountability, efficiency and reliability because they're trying to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Pitsos said.

John Ripley, president of the Baltimore County Federation of Public Employees, said his union would closely monitor how county management uses the system. Ripley said he also wonders how the county can afford the technology.

"If the system is used to unreasonably discipline or take action against employees, then we do have a problem," he said, adding that any technology may not always provide accurate results.

The devices are common for local governments in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

In Baltimore, the Department of Transportation was the first city agency to use GPS, with a pilot program starting in 2004, spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes said. Officials hope to expand the program, she said.

The city's Department of Public Works has the technology in more than 700 vehicles and is awaiting funding to equip more, spokesman Kurt Kocher said.

Howard County has been using GPS technology for its snow removal operations since 2000, spokeswoman Karen Spicer said. From November to March, the county uses the GPS system on about 144 vehicles.

GPS can help make sure workers are not misusing their time, said Wright of Fleet Counselor Services. "Sometimes it is Big Brother, and sometimes Big Brother's needed," he said.

Stradling says Baltimore County's system isn't focused on tracking people for disciplinary reasons, but rather is part of County Executive Kevin Kamenetz's efforts to do more with less by taking advantage of technology.

"We're not being punitive here. We're trying to help you get your work done," Stradling said. "A big majority of the county employees have no problem with it at all."

He added that technology can help employees perform their jobs more efficiently as government resources shrink. This year, more than 300 county employees retired under an early-retirement incentive that was meant to eliminate positions without laying anyone off.

The county has 7 percent fewer employees than it did last year.

"Every agency that's in the field is delivering some kind of service," Stradling said. "The folks that stayed behind after the retirements want to deliver the service."

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