Car 254, where are you? Sputtering along, like much of fleet

October 12, 1993|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

With lights and sirens blaring, the Towson precinct officer guns her cruiser toward an armed robbery in progress.

Unfortunately, the 1990 Crown Victoria will manage only 20 mph. It has more than 120,000 miles on the odometer and a bad transmission.

In Essex, on Baltimore County's east side, the midnight shift corporal occasionally doubles up officers in patrol cars when too many cruisers have broken down. Each double-up means one less patrol on the road.

In Garrison, to the west, two "new" patrol cars conk out almost immediately because they've been sitting on a lot for more than a year, unused. Their fuel systems are dirty and clogged with rust.

These are just some of the problems Baltimore County that police blame on a Hayden administration policy designed to save money by keeping old cars running longer instead of replacing them.

The last shipment of new cars -- 125 Crown Victorias purchased for $1.7 million -- arrived just as County Executive Roger B. Hayden was taking office almost three years ago. He immediately decided to store the cruisers and parcel them out slowly.

That meant using existing cars longer, running them up up to 120,000 miles instead of selling them at 80,000, as the county had done for years. Now county workers are refurbishing the cars that have reached 120,000 miles and trying to run them until they reach 180,000 miles.

County officials say they won't buy any new police cars until next July, when the new fiscal year begins.

In the meantime, the police must make do with what they have.

Of the cars the county bought in January 1991, 21 remain in storage. Police complain that when they're finally put on the road, they often break down because they've sat unused so long.

No one doubts that the plan has saved money, and county mechanics have come up with innovative ways to keep old cars on the road longer. But patrol officers are angry. They say they're being mistreated and that cost-cutting jeopardizes their safety.

"These are cars that run all the time, basically 24 hours a day," said Lt. Timothy Caslin, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police lodge. "How many people drive their cars 120,000 miles in an emergency situation? These cars are supposed to be in top-notch condition."

Robert Book, superintendent of vehicle operations and maintenance, acknowledged that the high mileage cars need more repairs, but that none of the cars is unsafe.

The vehicles get a complete inspection every 4,000 miles during routine servicing, he said. Cars that are refurbished may have entire systems replaced, including front ends, brakes, transmissions and even engines. County workers also repaint the vehicles and reupholster torn seats.

So far, county mechanics have refurbished 10 high-mileage cars at an average cost of $1,500. They won't refurbish a car if it costs more than $3,000.

"Anything that holds down the cost is what we're looking at," said Mr. Book.

Recently, county mechanics have begun cannibalizing wrecked police cars for parts. The doors, engines, hoods, steering wheels and other parts are stored in a Towson warehouse.

A wreck that would bring only $900 at a salvage auction can yield thousands of dollars worth of usable parts, Mr. Book said.

Mr. Hayden, who at one time talked about turning the repair service over to a private contractor, complimented the vehicle operations and maintenance staff last week, saying that they've done an innovative job under tough fiscal conditions.

But rank-and-file police are still unhappy.

"Without a doubt, that's one of their major complaints," said Capt. Jeffrey Caslin, commander of the White Marsh/Parkville precinct. " 'We need new cars.' The one thing we keep preaching to them is, if you don't feel safe driving a particular car, then don't drive it."

Cpl. Robert Baldauf, a midnight supervisor in Essex, said there are usually enough patrol cars to go around -- mainly because the county has 200 fewer officers than it did two years ago.

But a few weekends ago, he said, he was forced to double up officers in several cruisers.

Some believe that the cars are a symbol of frustration. Like other county employees, the police haven't received a pay increase in more than two years, and they have been forced to pay more for health insurance. They also were angered earlier this year when Mr. Hayden proposed weakening their accident leave benefits.

In the spring, police union negotiators and the county administration never agreed on a new contract. The county simply adopted its final offer.

Officers "feel like they're being left out there hanging," said Corporal Baldauf. "This is probably one of the darkest times for morale."

"The guys at the [repair] shop are doing a commendable job," said Lieutenant Caslin, the FOP president. "But they can only do so much."

While many officers think the cars they drive are unsafe, county mechanics say there have been no documented accidents caused by mechanical failure.

But the Towson officer whose patrol car's transmission misfired enroute to the holdup said that she fears for her safety.

"I already told my parents, if I die, check the car out and sue," she said. She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying that she feared reprisal.

One problem with low morale, several officers conceded, is that disgruntled officers are less likely to take care their cars or report problems to the garage.

One example is Car 254. The 1991 Crown Victoria came into service in August and immediately broke down because of a clogged fuel system. It was repaired and sent back out on the road.

Parkville officers complain that the virtually new car is already burning oil. But when it came into the county shop last week, it was 2,400 miles overdue for routine service service.

And no one told mechanics about the oil-burning problem.

"If we don't know about it, we can't fix it," said Mr. Book.

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