Saturday, October 14, 2006

Why buy new when a lemon will do?

We may not always like the police, but the thin blue line between order and anarchy is what helps keep democracies safe. We do expect a certain amount of accountability. How, then, to explain the investigative story in the Hamilton Spectator today -- here, here, and here -- about some rather unwise purchasing and maintenance decisions for the Hamilton Police Service's fleet?

About 13% of property taxes in Ontario goes towards the funding of police activities. That's fair and good, and for the most part we get value for money. But most police agencies in North America retire their vehicles after 12 months or 112,000 km (70,000 miles) whichever comes first. After that point, in the extremely severe conditions cops work under, the cars' maintenance costs skyrocket. Hamilton generally tries to stretch it to 150,000 km, no limit on years, to save some costs. Still pretty reasonable, until one realizes a few years ago some hotshot at City Hall decided it would be better to rebuild the cars at that point so they could be stretched to the limit -- 300,000 km. In addtion, the same braintrust decided to get some "gently used" patrol cars second-hand from Brantford.

Hamilton's fleet consists primarily of two cars -- the Chevrolet Impala and the Ford Crown Victoria. Both assembled in Canada, both very tough and very reliable for endurance. (There are also a handful of Volkswagen Beetles; primarily they are for the kids' patrol and at public events, although they do surprise some speeders on occasion.) The investigation, however, shows some cars in the service were subjected to high maintenance -- extremely high. One car in particular, # 226 (a 2002 Impala) had nearly $20,000 in repairs for one 14 month period: January 2005 to February 2006. Over its life, Hamilton has sunk $34,000 +. This for a car with a sticker price at the time of about $25,000. Several other cars in the fleet don't fare much better either.

The worse part is, as of June when the investigative period ended, some cars in the fleet dated back to 1998 -- eight years old. The standard in North America is three years and out. No one at City Council has seemed to notice there's a problem.

I'm probably not in a position to criticize -- my mostly trusty Oldsmobile is 20 years old, but it still has extremely low kilometrage (about 235,000) and I try to maintain it the best I can. But when these beasts are the only thing protecting the cops from danger, the men and women in blue need the confidence their car won't suddenly malfunction. We, as the people who pay them, should also expect they won't be driving lemons.

Wisely, the local police force has said they no longer buy second hand cars or attempt rebuilds; as well as rotating cars around the city's detachments so they get a roughly balanced workout between the urban and rural districts. Still, Hamilton deserves better. So I say again to those runing for public office in the local elections next month: INCUMBENTS OUT!

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