Like skillful jugglers working to keep all the balls in the air at once while one or two seem destined to fly totally out of control, public sector fleet managers are grappling with budgets assailed by a cascade of unexpected forces: fuel prices doubling, vehicle costs rising, parts and supplies scarcities and labor shortages.
Care to detail, innovative thinking, proactive steps, and networking with fleet colleagues, according to a group of seasoned fleet managers, can help keep those budget balls aloft as smoothly as possible.
In this four-part series, we hear guidance from fleet managers on managing their budgets amid uncertain times.
Manatee County, Florida, Fleet Division Manager Matthew Case, CEM, operates a 2,000-asset fleet, including cars, trucks, boats, landfill and construction vehicles and equipment, and transit buses supported by 50 staff members.
A 24-year automotive industry veteran, he has been named among the Government Fleet magazine’s “Top 20 Under 40 Government Fleet Leaders” and Construction Equipment magazine’s “Top 40 Leaders Under 40” in the country. He has earned the Association of Equipment Management Professionals’ (AEMP) Certified Equipment Manager recognition. AEMP also presented the Manatee division its Fleet Masters Award for large fleets.
Located in central Florida just south of Tampa with a population of 400,000, Case and his six-member administrative team, including a senor fiscal analyst, report to a county administrator and, ultimately, to the Board of County Commissioners, the budget approval authority.
A five-year projection, the Manatee fleet budget is refreshed annually. Today, however, projections are tough with pressures from the pandemic, decimated supply chains, equipment and labor shortages, fuel costs. “We had to adjust what we use for an internal inflation rate, raising it from 3.5%-4% to 4.5%-5%.”
With basic materials costs rising significantly, Case has seen major price increases for ambulance and rescue vehicles, “anything with great deal of electronics.” While some vendors seek to renegotiate original purchase orders due to their higher costs, Case holds them to the signed order, which he views as a contract.
“I remind these vendors that, unlike private companies that can close when costs prove insurmountable, we, the public sector fleets, cannot close. We have to keep going and so we support vendors when times are tough,” Case says, adding, “We actually have a great group of vendors.”
Stay Current, Expand Experience
In preparing budgets, “it’s very important that you have experienced staff and stay experienced and current yourself,” Case says. Dig deep into details, he encourages. “The key difference between good and excellent is details.”
Review vehicle specifications carefully, Case advises. “If you see a certain option included simply because ‘it’s always been there,’ cut it out. If the option was $200 a piece for 200 vehicles, that’s quite a savings.”
Case and his team closely watch the current trends in fuel costs, one of his biggest challenges. When spiking fuel prices suggested budget projections would be insufficient, Case reached out to county fiscal officials, presenting the situation’s details to request a budget amendment, “so we had the funds to continue buying fuel without interruption.”
Replace & Save
To budget for vehicle acquisition, Case recommends “proper projection of inflation for future purposes,” focusing on vehicles no longer cost effective to maintain. “You can spend good money on maintenance and repair for an inefficient unit with low availability or you can spend it on a new, efficient vehicle with high availability.”
Following this advice himself, Case and his crew embarked on a three-year initiative to replace maintenance-costly vehicles. “The first year, we save $150,000 as we took old the oldest equipment with the highest maintenance costs, based on data, Case explains. “The second year, parts and labor savings amounted to $250,000, and this year, 2022, we’re saving $300,000 that would have been spent on aging equipment.”
Case urges fleet managers to become “hands-on,” even as they take on administrative roles. “You have to know the details of running a fleet to control all fleet’s functions. Stay engaged.” He recommends “getting facetime” with supervising administrators three or four times a year to build relationships and tout fleet achievements.
Involved with AEMP, Government Fleet Expo, the Florida Association of Government Fleet Administrators and various OEM events, Case also understands the value of networking. “Be sure to add travel to three or four industry events to your annual budget. You hear about new trends and developments, have indispensable facetime conversations with colleagues, learn from the give-and-take in informal meetings,” he says. “I take a standard list of five-seven questions to every industry event. Listening to the responses, I can learn so much, and in turn, share my experiences.”