The Buffalo Common Council today approved two measures that will bring 51 new patrol cars to the city’s decrepit fleet.
The Council, without comment or debate, approved a contract to lease 31 new police cars from Enterprise Fleet Management for roughly the cost of purchasing 13 cars outright. The Council also approved borrowing $1 million to purchase 20 new police cars.
The cost to the city in the first year of the three-year lease period is $675,000 — about what the city appropriated for the purchase of police cars in the current budget.
In the second and third years, the cost is $458,000 per year, for a total of $1.56 million over the life of the lease.
In a letter to the Council, the city’s Department of Administration & Finance acknowledged that the city would pay somewhat more per car under the terms of the lease than for an outright purchase. But both the police department and Mayor Byron Brown indicated that the need to replenish the fleet as soon as possible justified the extra expense.
Investigative Post has been reporting on the sorry state of the department’s patrol fleet since last August. At the time, John Evans, president of the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association, called the situation “dire.” The city has made a much greater effort to address the problem in recent months.
At the end of the three-year lease period, the city can purchase the leased vehicles for $3,500.
Doing so might not make good economic sense: The useful life of a hard-driven police patrol car is generally accepted to be three years, according to national experts on fleet maintenance. After three years, studies show that it costs more to maintain a used patrol car than it does to purchase a new one.
That useful life calculation also complicates the use of borrowed money for police cars. As a rule, municipalities are not permitted to borrow money for purchase with a useful life of less than five years. But this is not the first time the city has bent that rule to purchase police cars.
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The industry experts who recommend replacing cars every three years also call for consistency in a city’s fleet maintenance and replacement program. What the mayor and the Common Council should do, by that logic, is commit $2 million a year to purchasing police vehicles, and place a standing order for 50 new cars every July.
Instead, the Brown administration has been all over the map. In 2015 and 2016, the police department received 85 new marked patrol cars, according to departmental notes, and 31 unmarked cars for detectives and command staff. (All of those cars are now due to be cycled out of service and replaced.) In 2010, 2013, and 2017, the police department received none. In 2012, just 11 car purchases were authorized.
Between 2010 and 2019, the department has received 267 new vehicles, of which 42 were unmarked cars for detectives and command staff. If the fleet were being replaced every three or four years, as best practices dictate, that number would be between 500 and 600.
The impact of letting the fleet grow old and depleted are manifold, according to Evans, the PBA president:
- Officers sometimes riding “three or four to a car,” he told Investigative Post last August.
- There sometimes are not enough cars during peak hours to answer 911 calls in a timely fashion.
- Officers sometimes are stuck sitting at desks, doing work civilian staff is paid to do, instead of patrolling their districts or answering calls.
- Younger officers do not get the experience they need patrolling their districts, because officers with seniority are the first to get working cars.
A recent survey of patrol cars assigned to the city’s five police districts showed just 47 working cars. According to the PBA, there should be at least 100 — 20 in each district.
Evans told Investigative Post he regards the leasing of police patrol cars “a gimmick,” but that he welcomes the new vehicles, however they are acquired.
The much-needed infusion of new vehicles may not arrive for some time: Police patrol cars generally take six to eight months from order to delivery.