Bright and shiny new vehicles are often seen as a status symbol, i.e. you must be doing well because you have a new car. Mono County Supervisor Larry Johnston isn’t so sure this is the image the County should be portraying, especially in a down economy where the private sector (whose taxes are used to pay for County expenses) is limping along.
Johnston made his concerns known at the Oct. 9 Board of Supervisors meeting when it came time to discuss the replacement of 14 County vehicles.
The County has the $546,000 to fund the vehicles in the replacement request in its Motor Pool Vehicle Replacement Fund but that’s not the point according to Johnston.
“These [the vehicles on the list] aren’t near their target mileage so why are we replacing them?” Johnston asked. “I realize they aren’t shiny and new but we need to consider this in the context of the economy and the perception of public employees driving new cars.”
This week, Mono County Public Works Assistant Director Jeff Walters further explained to The Sheet how the money in the vehicle replacement fund is collected.
“Each [County] department has a certain number of vehicles and each vehicle is charged a monthly rate based on mileage,” Walters explained. So a larger truck would be charged a higher rate. The rate formula also includes the vehicle’s replacement and salvage values. So the Motor Pool Fund is collected directly from each County department, it is not part of the General Fund.
Then, when a department needs a new vehicle, it puts in a request with Walters who takes the request to the Board, usually during budget hearings. This year, when Walters presented the requests during budget hearings in August, he was asked to come back at a later date to discuss the replacements further.
Walters explained to the Board on Oct. 9 that vehicle mileage targets ranged between 130,000 and 160,000 miles, depending on the vehicle. Out of the 14 vehicles on the replacement list, only five met or exceeded this range. Four others would be within 10,000 miles of the 130,000-bottom bracket of the range when the time came to turn them in.
“We shouldn’t be spending our half million now,” was Johnston’s take. “We should postpone most of these for six months.”
Supervisor Vikki Bauer, however, remembered the days before the Motor Pool Fund was set up.
“I remember when we had ambulances being towed away from accident scenes and I don’t ever want to go back there again,” Bauer said. “It reflects badly on the County, especially when we have the money in the fund. Things can go wrong because of age, not mileage and some of these vehicles are 13 years old.”
Supervisor Hap Hazard agreed. “It’s important to do this when you have the money. We can make the new ones last when times get tough.”
Supervisor Byng Hunt agreed with Johnston, and felt that more of an emphasis should be put on maintenance.
Supervisor Tim Hansen was supportive of replacing all the vehicles except for the two with mileage currently under 100,000. He also suggested that the County consider raising the target mileage by 10-15 percent.
“At 130,000 miles these vehicles are just getting broken in,” he said. “Most of the miles are highway miles so these vehicles should be like new.”
“Were not even following our targets now, why would we follow them if they were higher?” Johnston asked rhetorically.
According to Walters the useful mileage was raised around 2006. “We used to have some vehicle mileage at 80,000,” he said. It is the responsibility of the Public Works Director to develop the report on useful mileage and bring it to the Board. At the request of Johnston, Walters is currently working on an updated report, which he will present before the end of the calendar year.
“Useful mileage is determined by historic expenditures on vehicles as well as when we see a spike in maintenance costs,” Walters said. “We also have to keep in mind that we could experience some vehicles that are lemons. There’s always a risk in hanging onto vehicles longer, they could end up failing at the worst time.”
Walters pointed out that the Motor Pool Vehicle Replacement Fund can’t just sit around and grow to a point where it’s not being used.
“It’s public money and it needs to be spent,” he said. “The money is there for a purpose. The fund became a management function in 2008 to alleviate the problems from years ago [mentioned by Bauer].”
The Board approved replacement, with split votes, of seven vehicles in the Sheriff’s Department, an ambulance, a vehicle within Animal Control and a vehicle within the Road Department. There were four vehicle replacements requested within the general, shared motor pool that the Board voted to postpone until the mid-year budget review.