County overhauls car-fleet policies

The Baltimore Sun

Harford County will no longer hang on to a 10-year-old car with high mileage and higher maintenance bills. It will consolidate usage of its more than 1,000 vehicles among departments and trim as many vehicles from its fleet as practical.

The new fleet management plan takes effect July 1, with $11 million budgeted for the purchase of 202 new vehicles and to help county agencies make the transition from owners of vehicles and equipment to lessors.

Fleet management gives ownership of the property - everything from cars and trucks to bulldozers and trailers - to the Department of Procurement. Bringing all vehicles under the purview of one department offers a centralized management and better utilization of the entire fleet, said Deborah Henderson, county director of procurement.

Each county agency will then lease what it needs from the fleet through the procurement office. The term "lease" might be misleading, she said.

"It is not that we are going out and leasing our entire fleet from Hertz," Henderson said. "We will put ownership under fleet management and look at this from a countywide perspective. Each department will lease equipment from us. There will be a motor pool rather than permanently assigned vehicles."

Much of the county's 1,047 vehicles are old and cost more than they are worth to maintain, she said. The management plan will allow for replacement of vehicles and various pieces of equipment this year with a five-year window for repayment of those purchases.

The considerable savings on maintenance costs will free up funds for future acquisitions, officials said.

"The idea is to hold a vehicle for less time and sell it while it still has value," said Warren Patrick, fleet manager. "Then, we buy replacements at wholesale prices, by piggybacking our purchases with a large consortium, like the state."

A recent study has uncovered other cost-saving opportunities, including a sharing of vehicles and the downsizing of the numbers of cars in several areas, said Henderson, whose department will go from three cars to one, which several employees will use as needed.

"We have found a lot of equipment can be shared," she said. "Vehicles that are underutilized can be made available to more than one department. The dump trucks the highway department uses for snow removal in winter can help parks and rec with ball field maintenance in the spring."

In a sluggish economy, new vehicle purchases are often the first item cut from a budget, Patrick said. The asset management will show the impracticality of that policy.

"Driving old vehicles keeps us always in arrears," he said.

Henderson said, "A Band-Aid approach has wasted money."

Typically, used county vehicles would bring in an average of $200,000 annually from auctions.

The new policy should mean at least $1 million in additional revenues in the first year of sales of newer models, officials said.

"By reducing the time you own a vehicle, you reduce the cost of ownership," Patrick said.

In some instances, the county has spent so much on maintenance "that we have actually bought the vehicle again. Instead of selling a 10-year-old piece of junk for no residual value, we will sell for more money long before we get to that point."

Patrick is particularly concerned with aging cars in the Sheriff's Department, a few of which have rusting frames. Those will all be replaced this year.

"They have done as well as they could with the dollars we gave them," he said. "We have not been following the best fleet practices."

The fleet budget for 2009 is nearly triple its annual average, but Henderson and Patrick insist the investment will pay off. They know there will be tweaking, but they are certain the plan is sound.

"Our goal is not to grow our fleet but to centralize its management," Henderson said.

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