Vehicle fleet manager tells council “citizens of Missoula are getting their money”

The city’s fleet of vehicles last anywhere from three years to 25 years, with police cars having the shortest life. The city budgeted $3.1 million this fiscal year to keep up with its vehicle replacement needs. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Fresh off the budgeting season, the city’s fleet manager on Wednesday answered questions from Missoula City Council members asking how the city replaces its vehicles, and what it does with those vehicles when they reach the end of their life.

Police vehicles are short lived, lasting just three years, fleet manager Scott Colwell said. Other vehicles are retired after 25 years. Nearly all vehicles run through a cycle of use and are rated on a number of factors before heading to auction or municipal retirement.

“Our fleet is being used to the utmost we can possibly use it,” Colwell assured members of the Administration and Finance Committee during Wednesday’s session. “The citizens of Missoula are getting their money out of our vehicle use.”

The city budgeted roughly $3.1 million in Fiscal Year 2018 to replace the vehicles in its fleet, a figure that includes a $250,000 street sweeper and a number of new police patrol cars, each costing $45,000.

But some taxpayers have suggested that extending the life of a vehicle, if even by a little, could save the city money over time.

The suggestion, coupled with the cost of maintaining the city’s vehicle fleet, has prompted questions from City Council members asking why low-mile vehicles, such as a 2014 Dodge Charger police car with just 50,000 miles on the odometer, needed to be replaced on a regular basis.

“During the past budgeting process, there was a schedule associated with vehicle replacement, and when I was reviewing it, it occurred to me that there were a number of vehicles that don’t have very many miles on them, that aren’t very old and aren’t driven very often,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari.

“We wanted to get a firmer understanding of what the thought process is, how vehicles are recycled within the city, and how all of that works and factors into our budgeting process.”

Colwell said the replacement list can be deceiving at a glance and doesn’t include the detailed review of the vehicle’s history, its use and other factors.

Most of the budgeted vehicles represent needs in the city’s core replacement list, while the older vehicles they replace often find other municipal uses in what Colwell described as the “drop-down menu.”

The replacement schedule ranges from 3 years to 25 years.

“If we didn’t have the vehicles, it would cause significant changes in what we could do for the citizens of Missoula,” said Colwell. “When we go through the replacement program, it’s not replacing the vehicle for the entire city, it goes into the drop-down menu.”

But not all vehicles go into the drop-down menu for use by other departments, including heavy equipment and street sweepers, given their particular use, and police cruisers, which are retired after three years.

Colwell said police cars typically log 30,000 miles a year, resulting in 100,000 miles over their three-year life. But they also idle for an estimated 1,200 hours a year.

“In a maintenance situation, you have to add about 30 miles for every hour of idling time,” said Colwell. “In a year’s time, that’s 30,000 miles extra and in three years it’s 90,000. When we have a 100,000-mile car that looks like a police car, it’s actually 190,000 miles on that police car. That’s why we replace them every three years and we don’t put them back into the fleet. They’re wore out.”

Other high-cost items, such as street sweepers, also present a unique dilemma. They’re needed for the city to maintain federal air quality standards and their purchase doesn’t come cheap, costing around $250,000 per machine.

Despite the cost, Colwell said, it’s often less expensive over time to replace the entire machine instead of replacing costly components, such as the $22,000 spent recently to fix the vacuum parts on one sweeper.

“When vacuum parts on sweepers go bad, they get expensive quick,” Colwell said. “Spending $22,000 on maintenance on one piece of equipment pretty much destroys anybody’s budget in Missoula. Lengthening the time on a sweeper might not be good. I don’t think it’s wise in the financial part of things for the city of Missoula.”