Nearly every public sector fleet has faced an outsourcing proposal by its government or institutional leaders, particularly during times of budgetary stress. How one fleet organization — the City of Ventura, California — successfully met the outsourcing challenge may provide a blueprint for others tacking the same measure.
Located some 68 miles north of Los Angeles, Ventura is a 32-square-mile California coastal community of 109,000 residents, founded in 1782.
Barbara McCormack, the city’s fleet and facilities manager, and her team provide a full-service fleet organization. The nine-member team includes Frank Palmer, fleet services supervisor; six mechanics/technicians; a lead technician; and a fleet accounting technician.
The fleet comprises 454 vehicles and pieces of equipment, serving fire, police, public works, water/wastewater, parks and recreation, and code enforcement departments. Units include sedans for administration and police applications, fire trucks and apparatus, and utility trucks. The team operates one maintenance shop and three city vehicle fuel islands.
Strength Rests in Fleet Team
McCormack, whose background is management analyst, has been with the city since 1999 and served first at temporary fleet manager in 2018, which became permanent in 2019. She considers her technician team the organization’s “greatest strength.”
“They are a really strong group individually, but together they are a terrific team, pulling together, leaning on each other, learning from each other,” McCormack explained. “They are a group of people who care about each other — from the new guy to the legacy team members.”
Four mechanics have been with the city for a year, while two others are long-term employees with 23- and 18-years city tenure.
“Our legacy employees offer institutional history; they know the city leaders and personnel, processes, and organizations,” says McCormack.
On the other hand, she cites the “impressive” talent level of younger team members. “One has been recognized as the runner-up for the Best Young Tech Award, sponsored by Professional Tools and Equipment magazine, honoring the industry’s brightest and best under the age of 35. He digs into manuals and finds a way to fix something. If somebody built it, we can fix it!”
Communications is vital, McCormack believes. She and city leaders frequently communicate with the team, supplying clear direction and expectations, and reiterating the fleet’s critical mission. “We make clear to the team that city fire trucks and police cars don’t run without their support; they have a real, very direct impact on the city’s operations and ultimately for residents,” said McCormack.
She also credits Palmer with the close supportive relationship fleet has with its customers throughout the city’s administration. “Frank has established regular contact with all our customers, learning about their needs and explaining how our operations can serve them best,” she said.
Grim Times Arise with Pandemic Impact
The situation was bleak in 2020. The pandemic’s extraordinary impact had begun. Like most cities, Ventura officials examined budgets to deal with the upheaval COVID-19 was causing. It instituted a hiring freeze, which couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the fleet operations.
Four mechanics retired within a span of a few months, and the hiring freeze left the department severely understaffed. “It was a challenging time for everyone,” McCormack recalled. Her team searched for every opportunity to improve and increase efficiencies.
However, with just two mechanics, a lead and Palmer — and the pandemic-instigated automotive parts delays — workflow stalled. Lines of vehicles grew as drivers waited for preventive maintenance (PM) and repairs.
As PM compliance decreased to 11%, PM cycles were extended, and use of outside vendors increased “just to keep city vehicles, particularly police, fire, and water on the road,” McCormack recounted. “Fleet is in the business of maintaining vehicles per standards. Fleet operations had to slow down to make sure techs were safe and vehicles were safe to return to operations.”
To help boost staff morale, Public Works Director Phil Nelson and Deputy Public Works Director Mary Joyce Ivers, visited the fleet shop to discuss the difficult, uncertain times, while thanking team members for their hard work and emphasizing their critical importance to Ventura residents.
"We make clear to the team that city fire trucks and police cars don’t run without their support; they have a real, very direct impact on the city’s operations and ultimately for residents,” said McCormack.
Officials Float Outsourcing Proposal
As McCormack and her staff struggled to manage day-to-day tasks, city officials proposed outsourcing or privatizing fleet operations.
The team immediately began work on analyses and “numbers crunching” to determine if outsourcing was indeed a cost-effective solution.
McCormack examined PM frequency and, employing a 137-unit “snapshot “of light-duty vehicles, determined the shop performed 408 PMs annually. Using the in-house hourly rate, she calculated the total cost for 408 PMs. McCormack then compared fleet operations numbers with prices at local dealers. Fleet costs were dramatically lower: $40,000 versus $150,000 dealership charges for the same tasks per year.
“And that’s just PM, not the repairs that would be noted in standard PM,” McCormack pointed out.
McCormack also determined the costs of employee downtime for a vendor-serviced vehicle, including drop-off and pickup time, length of servicing, service write-up, delivery, administration, and inspection upon completion. Downtime added $112,000 in annual costs to the outsourced model.
The team was confident in the comprehensive cost comparisons for PM, repairs, and labor between its operations and local vendors. Clearly, staff members felt, “You can’t get a better deal than us.” They took their case to city leaders.
Making the Case for Fleet
The city’s executive leadership was invited to a tour of the fleet shop and operations; the tour’s main feature was a presentation of the staff findings.
Palmer took the lead on the PowerPoint demonstration, which began with fleet’s mission: “To provide safe, fully operational vehicles and equipment, 24/7, 365 days a year.” The presentation covered an overview of fleet operations:
- Vehicle numbers
- PM totals
- Repairs and unscheduled shop visits
- Full condition and safety inspections
- 24-hour road service
- Regulatory compliance
- Fuel facilities
In addition, Palmer described the team’s other responsibilities, including setting policies, procedures, standards, etc., McCormack recalled.
The presentation emphasized the fleet team’s loyalty to customers. “In contrast to outside vendors,” McCormack told city officials, “We’re here to maintain vehicles, not make money.”
The fleet team’s case was convincing. Fleet operations would remain in-house, and approval was given to hire two mechanics. More recently, two additional mechanic positions were also approved.
McCormack said in reflection, “Municipalities operate much the same: be good stewards of financing and maintain safe vehicles on the road. But here in fleet, we have the support of our directors, executive leadership, and customers, which allows us to do what we need to get the job, and our mission, completed.”