Local News

An aging fleet of vehicles

— Highlands County EMS has eight front-line ambulances. Five are older vans with small patient compartments in the back, three are newer one-ton Dodges with larger boxes.

“Our plan is to replace one a year,” said Director Harvey Craven.

The patient compartment can be reused once. “We put the same box on a new chassis,” Craven said. But he doesn’t want a new box on the oldest van, a 2009 Chevrolet with 144,000 miles on it.

“In an EMS environment, we want to go with the Dodge 4500, with the larger patient box on the back. It’s safer,” Craven said, citing National Highway Safety Administration statistics on ambulance crashes. Newer boxes have airbags in the box to protect the paramedic and the patient.

The NHSA report shows 8,500 ambulance crashes per year. Three hundred crashes proved fatal, with 357 EMS and patient deaths.

“I think everyone wants to know, when they dial 911, that they are going to get a deputy, an ambulance and fire truck,” Sheriff Susan Benton said. Both she and Craven support the one-cent sales tax extension, which will be on the Aug. 26 primary ballot.

Highlands County officials want to extend the current one-cent tax, which will expire in 2019, until 2034. That guaranteed revenue source will allow buildings, like the proposed sheriff’s office, to be financed longer than 2019.

Foes of a tax extension, which include Tea Party members speaking in county commission meetings, argue that recent vehicles last longer than 100,000 miles.

“That’s true,” said County Commissioner Don Elwell, whose day job is director of sales for Alan Jay Automotive Network. “But you have to look at the entire picture. Some vehicles are running while they’re standing by.”

“We have trucks that are pre-1990,” said Road and Bridge Supervisor Kyle Green. “Some that are older than that. We don’t use them that much, but we have a 6-wheel dump truck that may be a 1980 or 85. We have a pickup truck that has 300,00 miles on it that we’re still driving.”

Granted, Green said, some remain in service because they’re still adequate for the job.

“And the maintenance cost on them is low,” Green said. “They’re still in decent shape, and our guys do a good job of taking care of them.”

Of the 24 half-ton pickup trucks, 14 show from 124,000 to 268,000 miles. The 17 one-ton and 1.5 ton fleet is newer: only six have from 103,000 to 174,000 miles, according to a February 2014 inventory.

Road and Bridge is in charge of the county motor pool, and Green also uses the one-cent infrastructure surtax to resurface 30 miles of Highlands County roads every year.

When the fleet of 180 loaders, dump trucks, fuel trucks, patch trucks, semis, graders, loaders, pavers, rollers, caterpillars, and tractors is eventually replaced, most will be bought with the one-cent sales tax fund, Green said.

And if voters don’t approve on Aug. 26? “That will be an administration question,” Green said. “I don’t know how they’ll do it. But if it doesn’t, we’re going to have much bigger problems.”

Next year’s replacement list includes a 15-year-old road grader.

“We’ve got 15,000 hours on one grader,” Green said, who watches the Florida Department of Transportation and other counties. “You’d have to look long and hard to find a grader with 15,000 hours. We’ve got four graders that have more than 10,000 hours. That’s not a crazy amount, but when you get up to 15,000, 17,000 hours, you see the maintenance costs go up.”

Sheriff Benton also advocates for the extension. “It’s the most equitable tax in Highlands County. Everybody pays it.”

A list of 207 sheriff’s office vehicles shows 42 have more than 100,000 miles; one 2005 Silverado patrol vehicle has 143,000 miles.

At her office, the one-cent sales tax also pays for computers, forensic analysis equipment, fingerprint scanners, and a computer that downloads the cell phones of people suspected of crimes.

“If we don’t keep up our fleet of patrol cars and ambulances and paving roads, the primary functions of government,” Benton said, “if we don’t have the funds to really provide the services, I don’t know where else to go except to increase property taxes.”

Commissioners would scrutinize every purchase, Elwell said. “If there was a request for a new vehicle, the funds available would be dramatically reduced.”

Instead of being paid with the one-cent sales tax, Elwell said, new vehicles would be financed for a period of years.

The county inventory shows 12 ambulances. The four newest show from 2,216 to 85,608 on the odometer. The next four on the front line have from 100,000 to 143,000. Of the four spare vans, a 2007 Chevrolet has 92,000, a 2008 has 182,000.

“It’s important to keep vehicles that are response ready,” Craven said.