Emergency fleet vehicles in need of funding

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."

In response, both departments have had to creatively cut corners to make ends meet.

The fire department has eliminated four of its 22 fleet vehicles by combining their uses. For example, Anderson said the city would have to pay $550,000 to replace a fire engine and a vehicle used to fight grass fires. But combining those needs into one multipurpose engine costs $320,000 instead.

Purchasing demonstration ambulances, like those used briefly at trade shows, has also saved the fire department money.

To reduce repair costs, Anderson said firefighters who are also certified mechanics are often paid $35 to $40 an hour in overtime wages to work on equipment and vehicles, rather than paying a commercial vendor $125 to $150 an hour for the same work. The department also relies on a partnership with the school district, in which the fire department can utilize district mechanics to cut back on repair costs. Cook said the police department has decreased mileage by spreading officers' vehicle use around, so that cars are driven two shifts per day rather than three. Older cars that can no longer be used on patrol are driven to Santa Rosa when officers have to appear in court, so that newer cars don't accrue unnecessary mileage.

Cook said police departments normally surplus vehicles that have racked up 100,000 miles or so, but his department needs these vehicles in the patrol pool.

A decrease in personnel has decelerated the police department's vehicle crisis, but Cook was still forced to use asset seizure dollars confiscated from drug cases to replace a motorcycle and four Dodge chargers in 2012.

"Without asset seizure, I'm not sure what we would have done," Cook said. "We've cut back every way we possibly can."

City manager John Brown said his recommendation to the city council will be to establish a sales tax measure that would raise the necessary funds to improve the vehicle replacement program, while addressing the city's other needs, like roads.

Councilmember Mike Healy said the expenditure level proposed by the replacement program would be a "significant chunk of a tax measure," and would need to be weighed with a lot of other competing priorities.

But Healy acknowledged that "there are maintenance issues, performance issues, and there are a lot of vehicles in the city's fleet that have stuck around a lot longer than they really should have."

Anderson said without a tax measure as a funding source, utilizing a lease or purchasing vehicles through credit could potentially help. He said if the city considered only servicing priority one vehicles — which require the most immediate replacement — the general fund price tag would drop from $53 million to $31 million.

But with general funds still at $100,000 a year, Cook said the police department, like other city agencies, cannot plan to purchase new vehicles this year.

"The good news is, they recognize it's a problem, and they're taking steps to look at a fleet replacement program," Cook said. "But without funding, it really doesn't matter."

(Contact Allison Jarrell at allison.jarrell@arguscourier.com)