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New car policy could cost Travis County $5 million

Thursday, August 12, 2010 by Michelle Jimenez

Sometimes a single word can have a significant impact, and in Travis County’s case, the word “or” could set it back millions of dollars each year, if county commissioners decide to loosen the criteria for replacing old vehicles.


The court on Tuesday spent an hour discussing potential changes to the 1994 policy, which was rewritten by a Vehicle Use Committee. The new document, in the works since February, would equip constable vehicles with lights, sirens, and other equipment that would bring them closer in line with Sheriff’s Office guidelines for patrol vehicles.


It would also change the criteria vehicles must meet to become eligible for replacement. Currently, sheriff deputy vehicles are up for replacement when they are three years old and have 60,000 miles on the odometer. Other vehicles, such as those used by constables, are up for replacement at eight years and 90,000 miles.


Under the proposed policy, vehicles would be eligible as soon as they meet one of the two criteria  — age or mileage.


Jessica Rio, assistant budget director in the Planning and Budget Office, told the court that it would cost $7.2 million to replace all the vehicles and heavy equipment eligible this year, under the vehicle rates in the current policy. However, if the proposed policy were in place, the cost would be $12.3 million.


“That differential is a whole lot greater than I imagined,” County Judge Sam Biscoe said.


“Yeah, it’s pretty big,” Commissioner Ron Davis echoed.


That estimate doesn’t factor in the higher per-unit cost of upgrading constable cars.


“More vehicles are eligible, is what it comes down to,” Rio explained. “You have an ‘either/or’ situation instead of an ‘and’ situation.”


The estimated increase didn’t sit well with Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt.


“I understand how there is a desire for a bright-line rule, but at the same time, I am concerned that the bright-line rule perhaps is pushing it out too far,” she said. “An additional $5 million hit annually on our vehicle costs is a significant hit.”


Later in the presentation, Joe Gieselman, the county’s executive manager for Transportation and Natural Resources, said he wanted to take a closer look at the estimated $5 million increase.


“I think that’s probably a high number,” Gieselman said, adding he would prefer to get the court an annual average cost. “I think it probably overstates the ‘and/or’ issue. We kind of rushed this to press, and we can give you a better long-term view. There will be an increase in cost, but I don’t think it’s $5 million net every year.”


Rio told In Fact Daily on Wednesday that vehicle replacement costs vary from year to year. This year’s $7.2 million is higher than usual because the county is making up for replacements it didn’t make last year because of budget constraints.


Biscoe asked staff to provide him information about how many of the county’s 1,100 vehicles are used on a daily basis to perform duties and how much it would cost to honor the constables’ request to have their vehicles replaced every six years or at 90,000 miles.


“Eight years is a long time for a car, and so at some point the reliability comes into play,” Biscoe said. “And I’ve heard stories about having to put oil in your trunk so when it leaked out you’d stop, open your trunk, I guess put in a quart of oil, and go about your business. If we’ve got workers unable to perform because of transportation issues, seems to me that that would be a matter that we should try to address.”


Constable Richard McCain, who has been before the court every year since 2005 with requests for resources, told the court that vehicles routinely break down and make it difficult to do the job. However, in the past couple of years, McCain said, he has phased out old cars from his fleet and replaced them with newer models.


His big focus, though, is on getting the court’s approval to equip constable vehicles with the same equipment as sheriff’s deputy vehicles. He told In Fact Daily that he secured overhead lights and cameras for his deputies’ vehicles in a piecemeal fashion over the years by going before the court multiple times each budget cycle. McCain said the new policy, if approved by the court, would standardize what is included in each category of vehicle and create equality between the Sheriff’s Office and constables – an issue about which McCain is passionate and vocal.


“It’s been very aggravating for me to have to spend so much time just to get my tools to do my job,” he told the court.


Eckhardt reminded McCain that “there is a finite pie. If you want all patrol vehicles, there will be less vehicles overall.”


For his part, Biscoe told the court that he wants to vote in a couple of weeks, when the topic returns to commissioners, about equipment for the constables’ vehicles.


“It comes up two or three times a year,” he said. “It’s an interesting issue, but I’m worn out by it.”

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