High mileage and steep repair costs of patrol cars drive agency deeper in the red

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF THE COLUMBIA COUNTY SHERIFFS OFFICE - A passerby snaps a photo of a Columbia County Sheriffs Office squad car that broke down last Friday when its engine caught fire. The engine of a Columbia County Sheriff’s Office squad car caught fire Friday, Feb. 21, as a deputy was travelling to the scene of a crash in Scappoose.

The deputy apparently had to stop and get out of the vehicle when he noticed smoke billowing from the engine compartment. After putting out the flames with a fire extinguisher, the deputy called to have the car towed away.

“He was out helping for the search for that missing kayaker. Then he got a call for a traffic crash,” said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson. “He left there and was heading for the traffic crash when he said smoke was starting to fill the passenger compartment. He got out and saw fire coming from the bottom of the engine compartment.”

No other deputies were available to respond to the crash, Dickerson said, adding that officers from the Scappoose Police Department responded to the scene.

Dickerson said Friday’s incident wasn’t the first time the office had to tow one of its vehicles. He said many of the cars have high mileage and require frequent service or repairs.

Dickerson said there are times when the office doesn’t have a working vehicle in order to respond to an emergency situation.

“It’s an issue, just like our jail is an issue,” he said. “It’s a function of no money. It’s just the way it is. So we just do what we can with what we have and if we have to go out to buy another car, we rob from Peter to pay Paul and buy another car.”

Ideally, Dickerson said, the Sheriff’s Office would replace vehicles once they reach 100,000 miles or when the maintenance costs are more than the replacement costs. He estimated most of the office’s vehicles have somewhere between 127,000 and 130,000 miles on them.

“There are a lot of vehicles in need of replacement,” Dickerson said. “We’ve lost vehicles. We lost a vehicle in the fire of Les Schwab we haven’t replaced yet. Others are on the verge. We’re just waiting to see what the next step is and how much money we have in the budget.”

The St. Helens Les Schwab fire occurred in August 2012.

The vehicle that ignited Friday was a 2007 Ford Crown Victoria with about 140,000 miles. Dickerson said the office has put $700 into the car this fiscal year and it will likely cost another $700 to fix.

While many of the office’s cars have what Dickerson considers high mileage, the department does have three newer vehicles, but those can come at a high price.

“Our newest vehicles are the 2011 Chevy Tahoes, and they have between fifty and sixty thousand miles,” he said.

Dickerson said the Tahoes, fully equipped with electronics, mobile display terminals, a radio, lights, a siren and a cage came to about $50,000 each. He estimated a brand new squad car would likely come to about $45,000, but added the Tahoes are cheaper to maintain and offer four-wheel drive.

Dickerson said the Sheriff’s Office did recently buy a used Crown Victoria for about $3,000, but had to equip it with all the proper gear. Dickerson had no estimate for that cost.

“You look at all the mileages on these vehicles and you realize, yeah, we are going to have problems with our cars,”Dickerson said.

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