City puts 146 public safety vehicles on ‘Replace Now’ list. Are they safe?

Ledger-Enquirer file photo

There are 146 public safety vehicles on the streets of Columbus that meet the city’s “replace now” criteria, but officials say there’s no need to worry.

“When we say ‘replace now,’ that doesn’t mean the vehicles are unsafe,” said Deputy City Manager Lisa Goodwin. “It just means they reached the written criteria for replacement.”

Goodwin presented the numbers to Columbus Council on Tuesday during a budget committee review meeting. She said replacing the vehicles would cost the city about $13 million. Of the 146 vehicles, 109 are in the Columbus Police Department, eight in the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office, eight in the Muscogee County Marshal’s Office and 21 in the Columbus Fire/EMS Department.

The presentation stemmed from a May 2 Columbus Council appearance by Marshal Greg Countryman requesting funding for eight vehicles that had exceeded 100,000 miles and the city’s vehicle-age requirements.

“The Columbus Consolidated Government, the protocol they’ve always followed for turning in vehicles is seven years or 100,000 miles,” Countryman said at the time. “ ... We have vehicles that are squeaking, and we’ve had to change out two engines. We’ve had to change out transmissions. And the older and older those cars get, the more wear is put on those vehicles. It costs us more and eats up our automotive parts budget.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Goodwin said the city’s fleet manager placed vehicles on the replacement list based on the following policy:

  • Pursuit vehicles - 7 years or 100,000 miles
  • Non-Pursuit sedans - 12 years or 120,000 miles
  • Fire apparatus - 10 years or 100,000 miles
  • Ambulances - 5 years or 100,000 miles

If a vehicle meets the requirement for replacement and diagnosed as unsafe to operate, that vehicle will be dead lined and taken out of service by the fleet manager immediately, Goodwin explained. If it doesn’t meet the requirement but is diagnosed as “unsafe to operate” it is taken out of service until the mechanical issue has been repaired. If repairs cannot be made, the vehicles are taken out of service for auction.

Mayor Pro Tem Evelyn Turner-Pugh asked if the city had considered adjusting the replacement policy since vehicles last longer these days. City Manager Isaiah Hugley said the federal criteria to replace a sedan is about 5 years or 100,000 miles, and the city changed its requirements to 7 years before his tenure.

Councilor Skip Henderson suggested checking industry standards to see if the criteria has been adjusted in recent years, and he asked about battery problems that some public safety vehicles have had. Goodwin, Hugley and Mayor Teresa Tomlinson said batteries are being drained due to technology packages in pursuit vehicles.

Tomlinson said that was an issue with the Marshal’s Office. The city increased the department’s maintenance budget by $6,600 for more battery changes, she said, and it’s not necessary to replace a vehicle just because a battery stops working.

“We really wanted to clear that up because it kind of got off that something was wrong with these cars, or these cars were somehow unsafe or defective,” she said. “It is a normal part of a pursuit vehicle that the batteries have to be changed more often than a non-pursuit vehicle. So in the police department, they have regular maintenance, and it’s part of changing it out. It should be that way if there’s any pursuit vehicle.”

Goodwin broke down the number of sworn officers and vehicles for each public safety department as follows:

  • Columbus Police Department- 488 sworn officers, 547 vehicles ( 353 pursuit)
  • Sheriff’s Office - 343 sworn officers, 104 vehicles (60 pursuit)
  • Marshal’s Office - 17 sworn officers, 24 vehicles (17 pursuit)
  • Fire/EMS Department - 375 sworn officers, 87 vehicles, no pursuits
  • Muscogee County Prison - 104 sworn officers, 12 vehicles, no pursuits

That only raised more questions. Some councilors asked why so many pursuit vehicles were needed for some of the departments.

“I know police respond to 911 calls and they have to have a pursuit vehicle,” said Mayor Pro Tem Evelyn Turner Pugh. “But as far as the Sheriff’s and Marshal’s Office, what’s the need for pursuit vehicles?”

Hugley said the Sheriff’s Office transports prisoners from out of town back to Columbus and a pursuit vehicle with a cage is necessary. He said city staff would request information from the Marshal’s Office and other agencies about why such vehicles are needed.

Tomlinson said it costs about $25,000 to purchase a pursuit vehicle and $27,000 extra to add a technology package. Henderson said he believed pursuit vehicles are needed in the Sheriff’s and Marshal’s offices to lend support to the police department.

Councilor Gary Allen asked why the Marshal’s Office has 17 sworn officers and 24 vehicles, 17 of which are pursuit.

“Can I just ask you to administratively take a look at this?” he asked Goodwin. “... He has seven extra vehicles, there may be some way to shuffle this around.”

Alva James-Johnson: 706-571-8521, @amjreporter