Petaluma's fire and police departments expressed concerns over what will happen to emergency response times if the city doesn't find the funds to repair their fleets of vehicles, some of which had to be taken out of commission because they fell into disrepair.
In early May, city council members participated in a workshop led by Petaluma Fire Chief Larry Anderson, which was aimed at developing a citywide fleet vehicle replacement program.
Anderson's presentation, which sourced data from 11 city departments, highlighted a severe gap in general funds for the city's degrading vehicles. City Manager John Brown said the council allocates $100,000 per year of its general fund to vehicle replacement. But projections show that over the next 30 years, about $53.4 million worth of vehicle needs will accumulate — an average of about $2 million per year.
That estimate comes from assessing the city's 197 vehicles, which include all rolling stock, from tractors and lawnmowers to fire engines and ambulances. Of those vehicles, 146 are financed through the general fund, and 51 of the city's vehicles are supported by enterprise funds, which means those departments use service fees to maintain and replace them.
Beyond a couple ambulances, Anderson said these vehicles have gone without replacement for years. Replacing all of the city's fleet that's past due, he said, would cost $3.1 million alone.
As the city ponders potential sources of revenue to begin meeting such a vast need, agencies such as the police and fire departments continue to struggle with using older and fewer vehicles to provide emergency and safety services.
Petaluma Police Lt. Mike Cook said of the department's 22 patrol vehicles, about six to eight should be replaced on a yearly basis. Currently, the department's Chargers are two to four years old, and Fords are running six to eight years old.
Patrol vehicles are used 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they rack up mileage quickly, Cook said. New vehicles rotated into the fleet are purchased with an extended warranty, but the department's aged fleet is no longer under warranty and maintenance funding has run dry.
Due to budget limitations, Cook said the police department is forced to sideline vehicles because of the costs involved with repairing them.
"We just parked one patrol vehicle in the back lot because the transmission blew," Cook said. "That's $3,000 to replace, and I don't have the funding to do that right now."
Cook said the dilapidated vehicles not only negatively affect the officers' morale, but a lack of repairs and replacements could eventually mean limiting department operations.
"Eventually, they're going to break down and we're not going to be able to go to calls," Cook said. "When people call 911, they expect somebody to show up."
Anderson said the fire department has also seen the effects of limited vehicle funds — from issues with pumps on fire engines to ambulances breaking down en route. Extending service years, he said, is like rolling the dice.
"We don't want ambulances breaking down while transporting a seriously sick or injured patient, but that has happened in the past," Anderson said. "It never resulted in diminished patient care, but we had to change ambulances midstream and offload a patient from a broken down ambulance into one that's running."