Now that several years have elapsed, local law enforcement agencies are seeing the impacts. In a line of work where speedy transportation is a must, a run-down police patrol car can spell disaster, as it nearly did earlier this year when a deputyâ€™s car broke down while responding to domestic violence in the rural Nantahala community. As officers worked to tag-team transportation, a woman was running across her yard as her boyfriend fired a gun at her.
â€śIf my family needed help, I would sure hope whoever is coming to see to the needs of my family would be able to get there and not have the excuse that the vehicle broke down,â€ť said Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland. â€śPeople depend on us.â€ť
Before the recession, Macon County replaced five or six of its 25 vehicles each year, but when the budget went south, it stopped. Now, the county is working to get back on track. Holland plans to replace five vehicles this year, a move that will cost $160,000. This is merely getting back to the old schedule, however, and doesnâ€™t address the backlog created by the hiatus.
Seven of the departmentâ€™s vehicles have logged more than 100,000 miles. While that might not be a big deal for the family van, it is for a patrol car. Patrol cars are often driven around the clock, and they have to be ready for pursuit at a momentâ€™s notice. Of course, they also spend hours idling on the side of the road, so mileage isnâ€™t necessarily the best indicator of use.
Macon County wasnâ€™t the only one to slough off on its replacement schedule in the wake of a struggling economy. Haywood County, which has 64 vehicles in its fleet, used to replace six of them every year but now only replaces four.
â€śWe are keeping the cars around longer and holding onto considerably higher mileage vehicles than in pre-recession years,â€ť said Heidi Warren, Haywood County deputy and public information officer.
The town of Waynesville, meanwhile, has gone from replacing vehicles after 70,000 or 80,000 miles in the pre-recession years to pushing them past 100,000 now.
The town now has a new strategy to cut costs on police car replacements: doubling its fleet of police cars. The town just ordered 14 new patrol cars and one investigative vehicle with an upfront cost of more than $600,000.
Currently, officers share patrol cars, handing off keys to the next officer when they change shifts. That increases maintenance costs because the cars end up running around the clock, said Waynesville Police Chief Bill Hollingsed. It also increases personnel costs, because officers spend about 20 minutes at the end of each shift cleaning out their cars for the next officer.
â€śIn the long run, the new plan saves the town money because the vehicles will be on the road for five or six years rather than every two-and-a-half to three years having to replace them,â€ť Hollingsed said. â€śWeâ€™re right now the only other agency in the area other than Canton that does not have assigned vehicles.â€ť
The Waynesville Board of Alderman approved financing for the purchase, which totals $656,000 to purchase and outfit the 15 vehicles, including purchasing propane conversion kits so the cars can run on cheaper fuel. Propane is only two-thirds the price of gasoline. The vehicles are expected to be on the road in about three months.
â€śIn the long run, it is a cheaper program,â€ť Hollingsed said.