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Council grills staff over APD’s $2.9 million vehicle purchase

Friday, December 14, 2012 by Michael Kanin

At Thursday’s Council meeting Council Member Chris Riley turned a discussion about the greening of the Austin Police Department’s fleet into a quick reminder about a recurring theme: A lack of clear sustainability goals for a wide variety of programs.


APD requested to purchase 97 new police vehicles – 67 Ford Explorer sport-utility vehicles and 30 Ford Taurus Interceptor sedans – that will cost the city up to $2.9 million.


When pressed by Riley to explain why the city hadn’t explored more fuel-efficient vehicles, city staff suggested that they did the best they could.


Riley focused on the use of hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles by Austin Police, but his questioning recalled a conversation with Council Member Bill Spelman at last week’s Council meeting. During a presentation about the progress of citywide sustainability under her watch, Chief Sustainability Officer Lucia Athens fielded calls from Spelman and Riley to improve the city’s measures for tracking its sustainability goals.


The comments from Spelman and Riley came as whispers circulated on the second floor at City Hall about what, exactly, Athens’ office does.


Thursday, Athens said, “In an ideal world, 100 percent utilization of alternative fuel would be the goal. But the challenge, as was referred to, is that would only be possible if the alternative fuel was available at every single refueling location that the officer needed to utilize. I don’t know that we’ll ever get to that point.”


Riley fired back. “I don’t think anybody is suggesting that it should be 100 percent, or that it could realistically be 100 percent,” he said. “The question is what is the number? How have we been doing? Do we have any goals for getting there? And right now it seems like we’re a little fuzzy on exactly where we are on that.”


Spelman and Riley then found themselves arguing opposite points for at least a portion of the police fleet item. Spelman pointed out that Ford – the manufacturer of the vehicles bought by the city – took special pride in their efforts to make fuel-efficient police Taurus Interceptors, implying that city may have done its best to balance a green police fleet with the practical needs of the department.


“We should be getting better mileage with a better car,” Spelman offered.


In addition, Mayor Lee Leffingwell also pointed out that the Interceptors were designed for police use. “This particular vehicle is one that has been designed as a police vehicle,” Leffingwell said. “We need to meet the operational effectiveness needs of police cars.”


Assistant City Manager Mike McDonald told Council members that police and purchasing officials would do their best to accommodate desires for a green fleet with vehicles that would not be used on the frontline.


“The (APD) chief (Art Acevedo) and I have had conversations, as we go into the budget process, to look for opportunities because they do … have other areas that we can periodically take a look at,” he said.


However, Riley noted that only 21 of the department’s more than 1,200 vehicles were hybrids.


Despite the discussion, Council members approved the vehicle purchase request by unanimous vote.


All the 97 vehicles purchased are the model year 2013, with 91 of the vehicles replacing existing vehicles currently in the fleet, and six additions to the fleet.

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