The city council recently approved the sale of a large, barely used asphalt grinder — which the city purchased back in 2007 for $185,000 and used for a total of 12 hours — for a fraction of what the city paid for it.
The equipment sale is a sign of the economic times and challenges facing Petaluma, underscoring a shift in road maintenance from an in-house, do-it-yourself approach toward an outsourced, model less reliant on shrinking staff.
The machine in good working condition, but it has an estimated value in today's market of only $70,000, less than half of what the city shelled out to acquire it. According to records, the city just finished paying off the grinder, primarily used in major repaving projects, last year.
Public Works Director Dan St. John, who came to work for the city in January and was not involved with the purchase of the grinder, said that when the city purchased the machinery, it thought city workers would be handling large-scale road reconstruction projects themselves.
St. John added that due to reductions in the general fund budget, street repair staff in Petaluma has shrunk by 66 percent since the asphalt grinder was bought, and that the city does not have enough employees to properly operate the equipment.
"On top of that, none of the guys are trained on it," St. John said at the Sept. 24 City Council meeting.
Councilmember Mike Harris, who voted against selling the equipment along with Councilmember Mike Healy, said that selling a valuable asset for a fraction of what the city paid for it concerns him.
"We need to fix our streets and if we have a piece of equipment that can be used for that, we should be looking at keeping it," said Harris this week. "If our staff isn't trained to use it, we should train them."
But St. John said that, at the time of purchase, the city street maintenance crew had more positions and took a vastly different approach to repairing roads.
Instead of the road patching and temporary pavement crack sealing the department currently survives on, the city in 2007 was poised to begin repaving its streets with existing staff instead of outsourcing the work. To do so, it purchased a number of machines.
But as the economic downturn flattened sales tax revenues and city street workers were laid off, operating major machinery like asphalt grinders with a smaller work crew has become impossible.
According to a recent staff report, the asphalt grinder is too large and complex for the current street crews to use and is best suited for large street reconstruction projects, which the city now says are best left to outside paving contractors — almost the exact opposite of what the 2007 staff report recommended when former Administrative Services Director Steve Carmichael was lobbying to purchase the equipment.
Carmichael left his position with the city in August of 2008 in a "mutually agreed upon departure", details of which were never fully revealed.
Councilmember Mike Healy, who was not on the council when the machine was purchased, said that while he trusts city staff and St. John's recommendations, he is disappointed at the wasted city funds.
"It's frustrating when this type of situation occurs because our streets need a lot of attention," he said, adding that while he understands the city's need to shift directions in the way it tackles broken roads, the mistake is still a bitter pill to swallow.