Budget Gaps Limit Police Purchases Of New Vehicles
By DON STACOM | The Hartford Courant
December 25, 2008
Police officers accustomed to factory-fresh cruisers will be driving older, higher-mileage cars next year when cash-strapped communities stop buying new ones.
Facing huge budget gaps, officials in some towns and cities have decided to cut back or suspend their regular fleet-replacement schedules. The actions cover everything from dump trucks to street-sweepers, but replacement freezes can be especially punishing on police fleets, where heavy-duty, 24-7 driving burns through patrol cars quickly.
Police commanders said the cutbacks won't affect safety next year, but they'll have to work harder at keeping current cars on the road. Some departments are beefing up repair budgets, delaying delivery of new cruisers and encouraging patrol officers to go easy on their cars.
"We're telling our officers, 'Maybe pamper them a little bit. Things are tight, stretch the cars out as much as possible,'" said Assistant Chief Lester McKoy, commander of the Hartford Police Department's support services division. "But Hartford's a busy city — we're chasing people, driving over curbs, people ram our cars."
East Hartford usually buys five to 10 Ford Crown Victorias each year to replace the most worn and beaten-up cars in its fleet, but police administrators won't be asking for any in the 2009-10 budget, department spokesman Officer Hugo Benettieri said. Instead, the department's oldest cruisers will go to detectives and administrators.
"We certainly understand there's a lot of belt-tightening going on," Benettieri said. "And this won't affect public safety or officer safety — this [coming] year. But if it goes out another year or two after that, it poses all types of problems."
Bristol Mayor Art Ward has said he plans not to replace city vehicles unless they pose a hazard. City police have postponed delivery of eight new cars in this fiscal year's budget by several months to get more mileage from the current fleet. Police can go a year without replacement cars, but keeping the older ones longer will mean extra maintenance and repair costs, Lt. Kevin Morrell noted.
"There are things you wouldn't think of, like tires," Morrell said. "Eight cars with five tires per car, the [high performance] tires cost $130 apiece.
"...We usually remove our [front-]line cars at about 60,000 miles," he said. "People might think, 'But my car has 150,000 [miles] and it's going strong,' but you have to remember that our cars are also idling for hours every day, and they're getting at least three different operators every day with different driving habits."
New cruisers run about $21,000 to $25,000, depending on the model and how much extra equipment is ordered. Typically after one to three years in regular patrol service, they become reserves or they're assigned to lighter duty with school resource officers and court officers. Eventually, police sell them to car-auction companies or turn them back to the city for the engineering or public works departments to use.
Hartford, which has been under budget pressure for several years, has struggled more than most cities to keep its fleet modern. City leaders have not declared a freeze on buying cars next year, but they have laid off workers this year as the city faces the start of an uncommonly tough budget-setting season next month. Police will ask for 20 cars, but McKoy acknowledged that's optimistic.
Front-line cruisers in Hartford's fleet of more than 50 marked Crown Victorias generally get put aside as reserves when they reach 50,000 miles, but that's likely to edge toward 70,000 miles by the end of next year if the city doesn't keep up with replacing cars, McKoy said. Some spare cruisers already have logged 100,000 miles, and more of the fleet will be in that range next December.
The city still has enough cruisers available every day to deploy its full patrol force, but McKoy said he hopes city administrators will work to cut red tape that holds up replacement of demolished cars for months.
"We're not doubling up officers in cars now. But we're waiting a long time to replace cars that are out of service," he said. "If you get down to the minimum, then you're always running with the minimum. Next year, we'll need a little luck."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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