Despite ongoing budget constraints, the cities of Bingen and White Salmon are facing a reality: Aging vehicles don't distinguish between good economic times and bad. They still break down.
Bingen-White Salmon Police Chief Bruce Brending first publicly raised the issue at last week's meeting of the White Salmon City Council. He pointed out that the Police Department's vehicles cannot be neglected any longer.
"Three or four of our cars are at 100,000-plus miles. They are showing their age for being driven as police cars," Brending explained.
With this backdrop, the joint police committee for Bingen and White Salmon met on Monday evening to hear directly from White Salmon Mayor David Poucher and Police Chief Brending about the declining condition of many of the department's police cars.
Both Poucher and Brending made clear that several cars are gobbling up so much in repair costs that it makes better fiscal sense to put that money into new vehicles.
With one police car being "cannibalized" for spare parts, another car out of service and needing a new transmission, and yet another car with its brakes going out and also about to need a new transmission, there is a growing sense of urgency with the issue.
The cost of maintaining the four cars that have at least 100,000 miles on them has been estimated to be at least $2,000 a year per car.
"One of our cars is on life-support," Poucher noted. "I don't think you should have police vehicles on life-support. It's $2,400 to put a new transmission in, but every one of those four vehicles has more than one problem. We're going to be spending $2,500-$3,000 a year on maintenance. This would get us out of that."
Mayor Poucher said he supported a plan to lease four new, 2010 vehicles, fully outfitted, at a cost of about $29,000 each. The vehicles the department would purchase would either be Dodge Chargers or Chevrolet Impalas.
Poucher pointed out that the city saved about $47,000 by not hiring another police officer in 2010, and also that the Police Department has $27,000 in its 2010 budget set aside to purchase a new vehicle.
With a lease-purchase contract for four police cars, the city's costs would be approximately $26,000 per year for five years.
"For us to get new vehicles is about what it would cost us to spend on repairs and what not," Poucher said.
Poucher added that the lease financing package locks in a price, making the city's budget decisions easier going forward.
"For budget purposes, I can plan on this. I like the stability with this plan. Vehicle prices may go up, but this locks in a price for vehicles," Poucher said.
According to Brending, the department operates primarily with nine vehicles, with only five of them in "reasonably good shape," he said.
Brending added that the Police Department should be keeping its fleet relatively current by rotating in one new vehicle every year.
"We haven't done that. We've missed two years," Brending explained. "The last time we purchased a new vehicle was 2007. With this program, it puts us back on track."
"I'd like the support of the police committee to go ahead and enter into a lease-purchase agreement to replace four vehicles," Poucher said.
White Salmon City Council and police committee member Bob Landgren said he was sympathetic to the problem, but questioned whether the purchase could be justified.
"We live in a tight economy," Landgren explained. "I think the City Council has supported all the departments of the city. We want to support the Police Department, the Fire Department, the pool, the parks -- all are very important. We have a lot of challenges in front of us. What are the options if we buy two new cars and two used cars?"
"In my view, if you buy a used vehicle, you buy a used problem," Brending responded.
Brending added that buying a used vehicle would mean having to buy again relatively soon.
"You're looking at a department that keeps its vehicles for eight or 10 years. You can't get that with used cars. You'd just be postponing the same thing," Brending said. "Things are tight, I agree. But I don't know why there are concerns about giving the officers the proper equipment to do the work you want them to do."
"This is the first time I've heard the details," Landgren responded. "I think it's a good idea to send this on to the finance committee."
Police committee Betty Barnes, who will take over a Bingen's mayor on Jan. 1, said she agreed the proposed purchase of new cars should be forwarded to the finance committee for further review. She added that Bingen has some money in its budget that could go to help cover the costs of new police cars.
"Bingen has money set aside for a vehicle," Barnes said. "Every year we should be replacing part of the fleet, and we haven't done that."
However, given the ongoing budget issues facing the city of White Salmon in particular, Barnes wondered how the public might react if the city gets four new police cars all at once.
Brending responded that the vehicles would be paid for over a five-year period.
"But we'd be getting the cars at 2010 prices. It's a way of giving us what we need to get the job done," Brending said. "The cars giving us problems, we'd surplus those out."
Landgren suggested that the proposal be presented at a City Council meeting, to let citizens offer their input.
Brending agreed with that approach.
"I don't want anybody to say we rushed this through. We're not afraid of public scrutiny," Brending said. "With what we're driving and the repair rates, this deal makes economic sense."
The proposal to lease four new police cars will be the subject of a public meeting during the White Salmon City Council's Jan. 6 meeting.