A little gray box the size of a credit card, tucked into the corner of a vehicle dashboard, has been helping trim government waste for two years.
Since 2009, Augusta has used GPS tracking on its vehicles to monitor how well its employees stay on task behind the wheel. The devices are installed in 400 of the city's utility, public service, code enforcement and government pool vehicles.
Within a year, the tracking system paid for itself, said the city fleet manager, Ron Crowden. The Web-based service that receives the GPS signals costs $29.95 a month per vehicle to use.
"We saw lower fuel costs right away," Crowden said. "The system identifies driver behavior and promotes corrective action."
From his computer, Augusta Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier can click on one of his department's 169 vehicles to access its history. A map appears, dotted with little balloons that show where the vehicle stopped and for how long. Blue arrows show vehicle movements, with information about time and speed.
Utilities fuel usage dropped 20 percent with the system in place, Wiedmeier said.
"We used it to make sure vehicles weren't being run needlessly," he said. "It's also a good way to make sure vehicles are where they're supposed to be. Our maintenance division can compare a vehicle's movement history to the work order to make sure a driver went the speed limit and took a reasonable amount of time."
It can show whether a lunch break stretched to 1 1/2 hours, or whether a 20-minute drive to a broken sewer line took 40 minutes on the return trip, he said.
Crowden said there have been other benefits to knowing a driver's whereabouts. When a water or sewer line maintenance problem is called in, the Utilities Department can pull up GPS locations to find which vehicle is closest for dispatch. Twice, the system has been used to get help when vehicles broke down out of town.
Wiedmeier said most employees respond constructively to GPS tracking feedback.
There have been four documented instances in which vehicles was used for something other than work, he said. In one case, a worker moved furniture for a friend.
"Those employees no longer work for the city," Crowden said.