Just like individuals, local governments have to decide when is the right time to replace a vehicle that is beginning to show wear. In the past, governments often made that decision according to a formula that ensured vehicles were replaced before maintenance costs went up. But the tough economy has some local governments rethinking those formulas. Witness the Dunedin City Commission's recent public debate over whether a city-owned SUV with only 44,000 miles on it should be traded in.
It's not typical for the City Commission, a policy-making body, to micromanage decisions about replacing city cars and pickup trucks. Commissioners normally leave that decision to the city staff, which has used a typical formula to calculate when a vehicle has gotten too old to be useful.
But dollars are hard to come by these days, so commissioners want to stretch every penny. And one city commissioner, Dave Carson, has managed a fleet of work vehicles for years at the pest control company he owns. When the city staff brought in its fleet replacement package for this year, Carson saw some vehicles on it that he thought should have more miles left in them. The staff already had reduced its initial list, but Carson noticed that it still called for replacement of at least 10 vehicles with mileage under 84,000. Carson said the city's fleet maintenance department could repair those vehicles for little more than the cost of parts.
Commissioner Julie Bujalski agreed. Holding up the replacement list, she mused, "If anybody outside the city (government) looked at this …"
Carson flagged a 2004 Trailblazer with 44,000 miles that was scheduled to be replaced. He wanted to know why. The city staff explained that the vehicle was used by the fire department, was loaded down with specialized equipment including balky electronics, had required $5,300 in replacement parts so far, and simply wasn't a muscular enough vehicle for the job.
Then couldn't it be stripped of the specialized equipment and used by another department rather than traded in? Carson asked.
From the staff's perspective, holding on to older vehicles or ones that have performed poorly defeats the goal of running an efficient fleet. That's one of the reasons the city doesn't have many "hand-me-down vehicles," commissioners were told. And fleet managers have found that since Dunedin is small, mileage is not a good predictor of when a vehicle needs to be replaced. Ones with relatively low mileage can be completely worn out because of high "seat time."
By the end of the discussion, commissioners conceded there might be a lemon now and then that needs to be replaced early, but they wanted a detailed explanation from the fleet manager of why each vehicle on the list couldn't be kept around for another year or two.
"It's a different day. We're having to stretch things out a little bit," Mayor Dave Eggers explained.
Some local governments have been cutting the size of their fleets to cope with falling revenues. Dunedin's approach is to re-examine the city's replacement schedule with an eye toward squeezing more use out of each vehicle. Both are good tools. Careful record-keeping can help Dunedin determine whether keeping vehicles a little longer increases or decreases the city's fleet costs.