By DOTTY NIST
As approved by the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC), the Walton County Sheriff’s Office will be receiving 25 new vehicles to replace aging vehicles in its fleet, some of which are quite old.
The approval took place at the April 8 BCC meeting, but not before some discussion among the commissioners and public comment. The meeting took place at the South Walton Annex.
At the previous regular meeting, Walton County Administrator Larry Jones had asked the commissioners to begin thinking about the best use for the approximately $3.3 million net amount that the county had obtained through the settlement of its economic loss claim against BP. As part of a discussion that followed, BCC Chairman Bill Chapman had brought up the need to update the WCSO’s fleet of vehicles, particularly in view of vehicle updates having been put off during the past five years of very lean budgets.
While other needs were brought up as well, there was a sense of urgency with regard to a decision on the WCSO vehicles. Chapman revealed that a limited supply of law enforcement vehicles is manufactured, based on orders by law enforcement agencies. He explained that the WCSO would likely have trouble obtaining vehicles this year unless able to put in an order for the ones they needed by the deadline for ordering, which occurs in April.
At the March 25 BCC meeting, Walton County Sheriff Mike Adkinson confirmed that more than 100 vehicles in his fleet had in excess of 100,000 miles on them.
He was asked by the BCC to bring a proposal for needed vehicles to the April 8 BCC meeting.
The proposal presented at that meeting was for the purchase of 25 new vehicles at a cost of $987,500.
Maj. Joe Preston of the WCSO thanked the commissioners for considering the request.
“We would not be here if we did not consider our ability to respond to public safety service calls a critical element of what we do every day,” he said, adding that the WCSO’s aging fleet was having a negative impact on that ability to respond.
Preston reported that the 2009 had been the last year that the WCSO had been able to purchase a significant number of vehicles, 61 of them. In 2010, 22 vehicles were purchased, he continued. Later he revealed that eight vehicles had been purchased last year.
Over the past four years, Preston said, there had been no “replacement regime or schedule” for vehicles. He explained that, at 100,000 miles, law enforcement vehicles hit a “tipping point” at which maintenance becomes time-consuming and a significant expense.
Preston told the commissioners that over 65 percent of the vehicles in the fleet currently had more than 100,000 miles, and that by the end of the year approximately 75 percent of them would have more than 100,000 miles.
In response to a question, Preston said the $39,500 average per-vehicle cost included not only the purchase cost but also the cost to outfit the vehicle. He explained that the Crown Victoria, the staple law enforcement automobile, is no longer being manufactured and that the Chevy Caprice is now taking the place of the Crown Vic. While some of the electronics are transferable to the Caprice, other equipment such as the light bar and the vehicle cage are not, Preston said.
While stating her support of law enforcement, District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows observed that there were many other needs due to purchases having been postponed in other county departments and divisions, just as had happened with the WCSO. She suggested reducing the number of WCSO vehicles to be purchased.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld agreed on the matter of the many needs. He noted that he would like to see a pay increase for county employees and that it was not currently known what the county would be facing as far as health insurance costs in connection with the new law.
However, Imfeld said he appreciated how the WCSO had made vehicles in their fleet last, over and above such efforts by previous administrations. He moved for approval of the request for the 25 vehicles at a cost not to exceed $987,500, and his motion was seconded.
Santa Rosa Beach resident Bob Hudson came forward to ask questions about the purchase, including whether decreased maintenance costs resulting from the replacement of the old vehicles would be accounted for in the WCSO budget. Chapman responded that the purchase might not reduce total vehicle maintenance costs, since the remaining 200-plus vehicles in the fleet that were not being replaced would be getting older every day. However, Imfeld thanked Hudson and asked that the WCSO account in its budget for the reduced maintenance cost due to the replacement of the 25 vehicles.
Hudson also expressed concern that almost one-third of the net funds received in the settlement with BP would be expended with the vehicle purchase without taking a comprehensive look at needs in all county departments and divisions.
Preston countered that he believed the WCSO had justified the need for the vehicles. He noted that the WCSO had 241 vehicles, models ranging from 1993 to one 2014 vehicle. The 25 vehicles to be added, he stated, would be marked patrol vehicles to serve the citizens of the county.
Hudson asked if anyone had looked at whether ambulances, for instance, needed replacing. Chief Brian Coley of Walton County Fire Rescue was asked to comment on that and came forward. Speaking from personal experience, Coley said his personnel had recently tried to transport a critically-ill patient to Pensacola and that the ambulance had broken down on the road. Coley reveled there was a six-to-eight-month order time for ambulances—but that, unlike the situation with the law enforcement vehicles, there was no yearly cut-off date for ordering ambulances.
South Walton County resident Mary Konovsky commented that she had hoped to see the county take a “broad look” at needs before making a decision on this spending. She also requested that a decision be postponed in order to allow time for a look at alternate fuel and flex-fuel vehicles for the WCSO that would result in cost savings and a “smaller carbon footprint.”
Meadows commented that she would be voting against the request due to her belief that the BCC was “rushing in” with too much spending without sufficient analysis of total needs.
Imfeld’s motion for approval of the request carried in a 3-1 vote, with District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander absent due to illness and Meadows voting no.
Contacted on April 9, WCSO Public Information Officer Catherine Rodriguez stated that the WCSO would be ordering 20 Chevy Caprices and five Ford utility vehicles.
It is estimated that the vehicles will not be in service until the first of the year due to the time required for production, delivery and outfitting of the vehicles.
By DOTTY NIST