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Spring's fleet vehicles of vehicles is wearing out, but a stormwater fee could help

Squeaky wheels

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Police cruisers are showing their age, like this one spotted on a street downtown. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Police cruisers are showing their age, like this one spotted on a street downtown.
When Colorado Springs police officers report for duty, they can be assured their cruisers are ready to roll, a police official says. But it hasn’t been easy keeping the 577 police vehicles running, given the fleet’s average age of nine years, meaning that many are much older than that.

And police cars aren’t the worst of it. That distinction belongs to public works and parks vehicles, says Ryan Trujillo, sustainability and support services manager for the city, who oversees the city’s fleet maintenance contract with Serco, Inc.

From pickup trucks to snowplows, the city’s rolling stock — with an average age of 14 years — is limping along, Trujillo reports.

But the fleet could get a shot in the arm if voters approve a stormwater fee measure (2A) on the Nov. 7 ballot. Why? Because 2A, if approved, would allow the city to collect fees totaling about $17 million to fund drainage work that’s required under an intergovernmental agreement with Pueblo County that’s now funded with general fund tax money. Shifting that obligation to the fee-based Stormwater Enterprise would allow the city to reallocate general fund money to other needs. The proposed fees would charge all households $5 a month and $30 per acre per month for nonresidential developed tracts.

(Disclosure: Indy owner John Weiss is a board member of Together for Colorado Springs, which is supporting 2A.)

Mayor John Suthers says he wants to spend that freed-up money on hiring 100 cops in coming years to reduce response times to priority calls, which have reached 14 minutes. He also wants to add personnel at the Fire Department to curtail overtime pay, which adds millions of dollars to the budget each year. But money also is needed in another place, or, more accurately, hundreds of other places: namely, the city’s fleet of 1,450 vehicles.

As Trujillo reports, “I would say it’s in dire need of improvement.”

Police spokesperson Sgt. James Sokolik couldn’t think of an instance when a police car breakdown interfered with policing, saying, “We have fleet guys that work hard to keep those cars running.”

But there’s probably a good dose of luck involved. A typical patrol vehicle logs 30,000 to 40,000 miles a year in the Springs, Trujillo notes, adding that all city vehicles incur higher road miles than they would in most cities with similar populations, due to the size of the service territory. Colorado Springs sprawls roughly 200 square miles, compared to, say, Omaha, Nebraska, which has about the same population but covers only 130 square miles.

Trujillo says if a police car breaks down, there are extra vehicles parked at each substation to use as backups. Many patrol cars’ paint is peeling, a testament to their age and condition. Trujillo says those cars are gradually being replaced, but the Police Department spends only $950,000 a year for replacement vehicles, a figure that’s about 30 percent too low. The annual replacement spending should be $1.5 million to keep up with vehicles that are aging out, Trujillo says.

As for the rest of the city’s tax-supported vehicles, the city spends about $1 million a year replacing them, less than a quarter of the $4.5 million Trujillo says is needed to reach a sustainable level at which maintenance costs don’t eat the city’s lunch.

Some gains have been made in the last two years by leasing, rather than buying, vehicles, Trujillo says. “Due to the age of our fleet, it’s a way to help dig our way out of this hole,” he says, noting the city can lease 12 snow-plow trucks, and pay for them over time, for the cost of buying about two.

If no additional funding is pumped into the fleet, a city fact-sheet shows, by 2020 the average age of city vehicles would reach 16 years, while the average age of equipment, such as asphalt machines and tree chippers, would reach 17 years. However, if the city spends more, reaching $6 million in 2020, to replace vehicles, the fleet would average 11 years old.

While police cars are getting more run down, Trujillo says public works and parks crews are hampered more by the age of their vehicles. For example, when a pothole-patching asphalt truck breaks down, the crew is idled until a replacement can be located, filled with material and brought to the worksite.

Unexpected breakdowns also impact parks workers and pavement inspectors across the city, Trujillo says. “Those types of things could seem minor,” he says, “but they add up and do have an impact on the service we provide.”

Mayor Suthers says when he came into office in 2015, the city had seven street sweepers, but only two were operational. The city has since leased seven new ones, he says.

City Councilor Andy Pico says he can’t vouch for the city’s dollar figures for proposed spending but agrees the fleet is in bad shape overall. “I think the needs are valid,” he says. “The average age of the vehicles in the city fleet has gotten pretty old, and they’re high miles. So yeah, there is a need for that.”

But Councilor Bill Murray says via email, “Seems he [Suthers] has promised everyone everything, but nothing in writing” if the stormwater measure passes. I’ve heard from Police, Fire, Parks and now fleet. Promises are cheap these days.”

As for maintenance, the general fund spends about $3.5 million to maintain its 1,450 city vehicles via contractor Serco, which also handles Colorado Springs Utilities’ similar number of vehicles for a similar cost.

The older a vehicle gets, the more it costs to keep it on the road, and Trujillo says the city’s maintenance bills have increased 2 to 4 percent annually for at least three years. “If we have a robust replacement strategy,” he says, “we expect maintenance costs to decrease by 2 to 4 percent a year.”

Keeping older vehicles in service has become so costly that Serco, the city’s first outsourced fleet maintenance vendor, says it’s lost $1.4 million in three years on the contract, which commenced in 2014. Repair and maintenance costs have grown so dramatically that Serco sued the city last year seeking higher payments in the contract’s final two years.

Serco’s lawsuit was dismissed in late August after the city and Serco came to terms. While Serco had sought a 22 percent pay increase, the settlement agreement calls for the city to pay Serco only slightly more, at $4.1 million this year, and $4.2 million next year, with a consumer price index (CPI) escalator for 2018.

Suthers says his proposed budget for 2018 includes $1.2 million for a fleet replacement program, the first step in a multi-year program he hopes to see grow to $6 million by 2020. However, such increases won’t be possible unless the stormwater measure passes, he says.

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