Shrinking budgets and improved vehicle performance are two reasons law enforcement agencies drive fleet vehicles farther and longer than ever before.
Today’s law enforcement fleet managers are forced to keep vehicles to the 100,000-mile level and beyond, a figure many industry experts agree is an appropriate mileage level. However, it was a figure unheard of a decade ago.
Most fleets prefer to keep fleet vehicle mileage levels in the 75,000-mile range. The perception is that the older a vehicle, the more expensive it is to maintain, particularly given the nature of the law enforcement profession and the job itself, which often includes high-speed chases and vehicles driven particularly hard.
Today’s Vehicles Are More Durable
But today’s vehicles are more durable said Rich Cichon, vice president of Metrochecker cab service in Chicago. Cichon has consulted with numerous law enforcement officials and is a former member of General Motors, Ford, and DaimlerChrysler law enforcement fleet advisory boards. He said with just a few service routine changes, a vehicle can maintain its productivity to 200,000 miles.
The San Diego Police Department drives fleet vehicles well past the 100,000-mile level, not out of choice but necessity, said Police Fleet Administrator John Alley. He would prefer to turn over vehicles at 80,000 miles because he feels at higher mileages, major service issues and expenses, such as transmission and engine problems, frequently occur.
“We, like other agencies throughout California, have been forced to cut in many areas,” Alley said. “So, we might wait longer than in past years to turn (fleet vehicles) over. We would prefer to maintain a level of 80,000 miles when possible.”
Alley said his priority for newer vehicles is in the patrol area where command, utility, undercover, and administrative vehicles are often older. Out of 1,600 fleet vehicles, approximately 550 in the San Diego P.D. fleet are black-and-white patrol units.
“We’ll rotate older fleet vehicles to our administrative pool,” he said.
Paul Lauria, president of Mercury Associates, a fleet consulting firm in Gaithersburg, Md., said most fleet managers focus more on vehicle age rather than a set mileage mark, particularly with law enforcement vehicles often engaged in pursuit activities.
“Because of better engine design and higher-quality parts inherent with today’s vehicles, you should expect that you can drive today’s cars longer,” Lauria said. “Cars with the police package are extremely well equipped.
“But what we have to remember is that law enforcement vehicles are driven extremely hard and are more likely to have issues earlier than other fleet cars.”
Enforcement Agencies Are Hesitant to Drive Vehicles for Too Long
For this reason, many law enforcement agencies are understandably hesitant to risk driving their vehicles too long. Fleet usage is often mission-critical and the costs of unpredictable performance associated with high-mileage vehicles are greater than the cost of purchasing vehicles more frequently.
Law enforcement agencies are also under pressure to compete with each other for talented officers, and the more often an officer receives a new fleet vehicle the better. Lauria said there is an unabashed comparison of fleet vehicle use by departments and, in some cases, peer pressure as much as budgetary concerns can affect final fleet vehicle use decisions. “There are politics involved in the process, no question,” Lauria said.
The Massachusetts State Police must justify new-vehicle costs and need to the state, said Sgt. Mark Caron, fleet administrator.
For many years, Massachusetts drove hundreds of fleet vehicles well over 100,000 — and sometimes as high as 200,000 — miles. The state is now in the final term of a five-year plan that helps turn over vehicles after they hit the 100,000-mile mark to increase officer safety.
“We purchase vehicles in bulk and did our homework to help lawmakers realize why this was a need,” Caron said. “We re-evaluate each car after 100,000 miles and will continue to use some based on past performance, but after each five-year period,we are in the market for hundreds of new vehicles.”
Caron expects the state legislature will renew the program for another five years during 2007.
In Montgomery County, Texas, a constant battle is waged each year over the budget for fleet vehicles, a common battle for agencies throughout Texas and across the country. Lt. Dan Norris said fleet budget decisions are made one year at a time, although when possible, the 100,000-mile level is the maximum service mileage level.
Yet given the budgetary realties, that procedure is not always feasible, admits Norris. “There is a process we need to go through to determine how long fleet vehicles are driven, and we accept that,” he said. “It’s not a decision that we can make in a vacuum by ourselves, and factors such as budget, availability, and more are part of the equation.”
Older Units Add to Bottom Line
Agencies, such as the San Diego Police Department, that must use higher mileage vehicles have trouble convincing politicians and elected officials that older vehicles could actually be contributing more red to the department’s bottom line.Alley referred to the practice as “deferred capital maintenance. "More fleet vehicle value is lost in depreciation than elected officials realize. To help maintain performance as long as possible, Alley suggests practicing micro- and macro- vehicle rotation. Lower-mileage units are occasionally switched to high-mileage duties and vice-versa.
“It helps to balance out the fleet in terms of vehicle turnover needs,” Alley said. “It’s a way to efficiently maximize a vehicle’s best years.”
The Charles County, Md., Sheriff’s Office assumes a four-year vehicle life when preparing budgets, said Bruce MacLean, fleet manager and Ford Motor Police Fleet Advisory Board member.
MacLean said most vehicles are removed by 120,000 miles, but each vehicle is assessed individually. Fleet vehicles are driven an average of 25,000-30,000 miles each year.
In addition, the number of vehicle makes and models Charles County operates has risen in recent years. The fleet uses Ford Crown Victorias, but also ATVs, motorcycles, import-badged sedans, and vans for specialty units.
“Simply put, cars are much better engineered today, and with proper maintenance, last longer than even five years ago,”MacLean said. “At one time, a police car with 100,000 miles was pretty much unheard of, but engineering, parts quality, technician quality, and manufacturing improvements have all played a part in increasing vehicle life.”
Some agencies do turn over fleet vehicles more frequently. Tom Reedy, public information officer for Denton County Sheriff ’s Department in Denton, Texas, said patrol vehicles in his county are driven to 75,000 miles before assessment, while other vehicles are driven up to 85,000 miles.
“Our officers are tough on their vehicles for obvious reasons, but 75,000 is not a drop-dead number,” said Reedy. “If we can, we like to replace 25 percent of our fleet each year, but a car can be driven over the average mileage level if it has a clean service record.”
The Charles County, Md., Sheriff’s Office runs its fleet vehicle an average of 25,000-30,000 miles each year and assumes a four-year vehicle life when preparing budgets.
Use Lifecycle Costing
Lt. Curtis Exley with the Idaho State Police in Coeur d’Alene believes a method of lifecycle costing should be applied to help agencies determine how long a fleet vehicle should be used and whether 100,000 miles is an acceptable level.
Exley believes that, considering the cost and frequency of vehicle rotation or replacement, law enforcement agencies can find better strategies for developing lifecycle estimates, including vehicle replacement, operation, and maintenance.
“Developing these strategies can improve vehicle operating and overall agency efficiencies, reducing unnecessary equipment costs,” Exley said.
Exley concludes that with proper maintenance, fleet vehicles can be driven well over 100,000 miles since the wear and tear on most parts is routine, and they can be replaced, if needed, at a low cost.
Since public agency needs, objectives, and financial and operating capabilities differ, each agency can analyze the advantages and disadvantages of its equipment maintenance methods to determine which best contributes cost-effectively to the agency.
After all, economic life is equally important to the role of fleet management. Economic life relates to the total stream of costs associated with the specific vehicle over a period of time. Therefore, it impacts both capital and operating budgets.
The economic life of a vehicle, said Exley, refers to the length of time the average total vehicle cost is at a minimum. Total unit expense encompasses all costs associated with vehicle ownership. A vehicle’s initial purchase price does not always accurately or completely indicate its cost.
“While the price of a new vehicle represents the expenditure to acquire the automobile, several component factors determine the cost,” Exley said. “The identification and analysis of these cost components form the basis of lifecycle costing.”
That’s why Exley said agencies should apply lifecycle costing to determine when they should rotate or replace a vehicle. He defines lifecycle costing as a method for projecting and evaluating the costs of one particular vehicle with another similar, yet alternative, vehicle. The optimum time to replace a vehicle is when its total costs, averaged over the vehicle’s lifetime, are at a minimum.
This concept, referred to as a vehicle’s economic life expectancy, includes such costs as depreciation, operating expenses, maintenance, and downtime. Agencies can reasonably expect that some cost components will increase during the vehicle’s economic life, whereas others will decline.
Most Remarket Fleet Vehicles at Auction
The question of what to do with used fleet vehicles is debated continually. Some decisions are based on resale values. The majority of agencies interviewed sell vehicles at county or local auctions.Most fleet administrators indicated their preferred method of remarketing high-mileage vehicles was through employee or public auctions or salvage yards.
Narita Holmes, former purchasing agent and current fleet consultant for the Ector County Sheriff ’s Department in Texas, said auctions can be a great way to sell older fleet vehicles to cab companies who desire such police package features as double side-view mirrors.
“Increased resale value can help pay for new vehicles,” said Holmes. “You want to look at quality in the short-term and depreciation in the long-term if you plan to resell the vehicles.”
Indeed, Ector County and other agencies make purchase decisions with resale value in mind. County vehicles with auto door locks, fabric seats, and other desirable, inexpensive options often generate a good return.
Before a car is offered for sale, the Ector County vehicle maintenance department makes minor repairs that could positively affect resale price. Examples include plugging holes in hoses, fixing radio problems, or adding fresh exterior striping.
“It’s similar to selling a home when you put some new carpeting in a room or two and add a fresh coat of paint,” said Holmes. “It may not have a major effect on the final price, but every little bit helps.”
Norris said an in-house service department in Montgomery County handles fleet vehicle maintenance. The number of new vehicles purchased each year is based on the current fiscal budget. In general, vehicles are sold at a county auction after reaching an average 120,000 miles in use.
At auction, vehicles generally are sold for $3,000 to $7,500, said Norris. Fleet vehicles sold at auctions often are purchased at or near Kelley Blue Book value. Even if they sell for below that standard value, the county spends very little to promote the auction.
“We see private citizens, car buffs, and business owners buying the vehicles, pretty much anyone who is looking for a good car and a good bargain,” said Norris. “The auction buyers know that our vehicles are well maintained and have many features and additions that aren’t standard in most vehicles.
Holmes said Ector County prefers auctions because they can drive up the price of a car, allowing the department to realize up to and beyond Kelley Blue Book value.
Dealers often give a trade-in value comparable to Kelley Blue Book values for police vehicles because they know the car has been maintained. But if an agency desires cash instead of a trade-in from a dealer, they often can expect a few thousand dollars less than from selling to a private buyer.
“It makes sense to us to sell at an auction because there is very little work we have to do to prepare or to publicize it,” said Reedy.“There’s always a high demand for vehicles with the full police package.”
All Charles County Sheriff ’s Department fleet cars are also sold at an auction, MacLean said. The proceeds are returned to the county’s general fund and may ultimately be used for newvehicle purchases.
“We return all markings and equipment and clean them up well before they are picked up by our contractor for sale,”MacLean said.
Up to 98 percent of all cabs bought by private companies in Chicago are purchased from law enforcement agencies, Cichon estimates. An additional $1,000 in new tires and front-end parts is all he adds to these vehicles once they become part of a cab fleet. Since many of his cabs are driven up to or more than 500 miles per day during three shifts, he adds a new quart of oil every two days, eliminating the need for actual oil changes.