Polk County Develop First-Ever SUV Acquisition Policy

March 2006, Government Fleet - Feature

by Bob Stanton

The proliferation of sport/utility vehicles (SUVs) in government sectors is a growing concern among citizens and politicians alike. Issues run the entire spectrum from acquisition, fuel, and maintenance costs to the perception of SUVs as an employee benefit from which no citizen advantage is realized.The SUV segment enjoys a love/hate relationship with the motoring public, unique when compared to sedans or even pickups. No other vehicle segment engenders the range of conflicted emotions, which have increased as the SUV population has exploded on our highways in recent years. SUV owners enjoy the vehicle’s size, convenience, and perceived safety advantage, but lament poor gas mileage. Motorists who don’t own an SUV complain their large size contributes to unsafe roadways and increased environmental problems.Popularity Mirrored in Public Sector Fleets
The popularity and growth of SUVs in the marketplace has been mirrored in government fleets, resulting in a mushrooming of the SUV population in local, state, and federal government fleets. An example of the attention SUV growth in government fleets has received was highlighted recently by a State of California audit that reported the state government fleet contained more than 70,000 SUVs. The report prompted calls for legislation restricting the acquisition of state-owned SUVs. Gov. Rendell of Pennsylvania, concerned over the number of SUVs in his state’s fleet, prohibited all future SUV purchases. Citizen angst over the SUV proliferation is becoming more evident. Government fleets are undergoing increased scrutiny from the press and elected officials questioning the necessity, value, and cost of SUV ownership and operation in government service. In a recent study released by the National Association of Fleet Administrators (NAFA), SUVs cost an average of $0.056/mile more than a typical sedan. The primary question is: Are there other less-expensive vehicles that can perform government tasks just as well as an SUV? In many cases, the answer is yes.Polk County Addresses Growth in SUV Inventory
Over the past five years, Florida’s Polk County government SUV total has grown to more than 12 percent of the county’s overall on-highway vehicle inventory. Although neither newspapers nor citizens have questioned the increase of SUVs in Polk County, the county administration decided their growth should be managed more effectively.Polk County tackled this question directly by establishing an SUV acquisition policy that combines both specific criteria for SUV approval and an independent oversight committee charged with evaluating each SUV request and ongoing monitoring of whether SUVs continue to meet the approval criteria. Polk County officials believe their fleet should be comprised of the smallest, most-efficient vehicles capable of performing their assigned missions. In some cases, SUVs represent a perfect mission-capable vehicle. In others, however, it was discovered the missions assigned to SUVs could be performed equally well by smaller, less-expensive, and more efficient vehicles. After surveying 52 local governments around the country, the lack of clear guidelines made it evident that Polk County should develop its own SUV control policies and guidelines. Although many state and county governments had enacted ordinances and regulations “discouraging” SUV acquisition, no specific guidelines or criteria were found that actually limited SUV purchases or provided management oversight of the acquisition process. In January 2006, after 14 months of review, Polk County’s SUV purchase criteria was implemented. SUV Requests Must Meet at Least One of Three Criteria
In Polk County, the requester must first meet at least one of the following conditions to be considered for SUV acquisition approval:
  • The vehicle must transport three or more passengers, in addition to the driver, a minimum of three days per week.
  • If cargo or equipment is transported, the length must exceed 70 inches (Ford Explorer) or 60 inches (Ford Escape) and otherwise be incompatible for transport in a pickup, automobile, cargo van, or minivan. Transported equipment must be consistently carried a minimum of two days per week.
  • The need for an SUV, rather than a sedan, van, or truck, to fulfill a vehicle’s mission must be sufficiently specific and quantifiable. For instance, in 2004 when the eyes of three hurricanes traversed the county, Polk County benefited greatly from a 2003 acquisition of Ford Expeditions. The Expeditions ran emergency calls and transported patients when high wind speeds made higher-profile ambulance operation too dangerous. In addition to these three criteria, the following qualifiers were added to Polk County’s vehicle acquisition policy to assure its effectiveness:
  • If a four-wheel-drive option is requested, the request must include the percentage that four-wheel-drive use is expected. Each four-wheel-drive vehicle in the county must have an onboard counter installed to monitor the activation of the four-wheel-drive feature for future vehicle selection purposes.
  • If more than one SUV size or type meets the above criteria, the smallest, least-expensive SUV will be purchased.
  • Current SUVs in the county’s inventory are not exempt from this policy. Future replacements for existing SUVs must adhere to this policy.All SUV requests are reviewed by a committee consisting of the directors of fleet management, purchasing, and the office of management and budget. If a request is denied, the committee recommends an alternate vehicle. An appeal process is in place to assure each request be given the proper forum should a request be denied.Each user is held accountable for adherence to the criteria submitted as justification. If the vehicle use changes or fails to adhere to the criteria, the fleet management division may reassign the SUV.Polk County’s fleet management division maintains a rental vehicle pool consisting of various sizes of four-wheel-drive SUVs to accommodate users unable to meet the criteria for full-time SUV assignment.The SUV criteria was established to assure that Polk County vehicles are:
  • The most efficient, cost-effective, lowest-emission type available.
  • The least expensive to acquire, maintain, and fuel.
  • The most practical to meet the designated mission assignment.
  • Considered as tools to facilitate a given set of mission standards rather than position perks or merely to fit a position or job title.Polk County believes it may be among the first in the nation to use specific and quantifiable criteria to assure SUVs are purchased when no other less-expensive vehicle will meet required needs.While Polk County management recognizes the difficulty in monitoring the ultimate use of each SUV, by better managing the acquisition process upfront, they feel the need for such monitoring will be minimized. Further and more importantly, the attention and scrutiny given each SUV acquisition will help assure the added value in mission productivity will justify the additional investment required of Polk County taxpayers.
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