Quick fix sought for old equipment

Remedy: To replace aging tractors, fire engines and other equipment, the county executive is proposing to sell $4 million in bonds.

January 25, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

With Francis Ness at the wheel, the big yellow Caterpillar loader whipped around Howard County's Dayton highway yard, twisting, turning and pushing like a football player in the Super Bowl, mixing road salt with cinders for the next storm.

But appearances can be deceptive.

The big machine came to the county in 1972, the same year Ness did, but unlike him, it spent half of the past year idled, waiting for steering pump repairs. If it breaks down again, the county has no backup, said David Rose, fleet supervisor.

"It's like in semiretirement now," Rose said, explaining that the loader is so prone to breakdowns it's never allowed out of the main highway yard. After so many years working with road salt, he and mechanic Harry Hawkes said, hydraulic lines, electric wires, even the bolts and metal tire rims corrode so quickly they cause frequent breakdowns.

"The tire rims won't hold air," Rose said, noting that replacing a rim costs $1,500. "Salt and water find their way into the wires."

A simple part replacement gets very complicated, Hawkes said, such as when corroded bolts break.

County Executive James N. Robey wants to replace Ness' 28-year-old loader and 30 other aging off-road machines for $2.5 million, along with five old fire engine pumpers that would cost $300,000 each.

The fire engines have deteriorated to the point that they're "a potential threat to public safety," according to a memo to the County Council from Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director, and the administration doesn't want to wait until the next budget year.

Wacks said that seven Fire Department pumpers are more than 10 years old and have more than 100,000 miles on them. Maintenance and down time are "excessive," said Wacks. "The situation is critical."

Howard County is playing catch-up from purchases put off after the last recession, and Robey's administration says it is time for a more dramatic move. He wants to sell $4 million worth of bonds -- borrowing authority left over from other projects and $1.1 million in contingency funds -- for a one-time purchase to get the county back on a replacement schedule.

No one in county government disputes the need, but the proposed bond sale has raised eyebrows on the County Council, which must approve it. Vehicles are normally bought with operating budget cash, not bonds, but Wacks said the only other quick option is lease-purchase, which would be more expensive. It takes eight to 10 months to get such large machines delivered, he said.

Further, Wacks argued, most county vehicles have been replaced over the past five years, though preference was given to police cars and other front-line vehicles.

"The county fleet is in the best shape ever," he said, but this year the county was scheduled to replace these most expensive vehicles. The big loaders and engines cost between $25,000 and $325,000 each and normally last about 12 years. The council is to discuss the unusual proposal today and vote on it Feb. 3.

"I have huge concerns," said council Chairwoman Mary C. Lorsung, a west Columbia Democrat who is leery of making such a big, expensive move between annual budget cycles.

"Vehicles don't get to be 20 years old from one budget session to the next," she said, wondering why Robey didn't ask for the money to buy vehicles in his last budget.

"I have castigated people who have come in for $100,000 out of the budget cycle," she said. "I'm not arguing that these vehicles don't need to be replaced, but it shouldn't be coming as a surprise. It really shouldn't."

Other members are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

Wacks told the council that Robey had not realized last spring, his first in office, how severe the replacement need was. After the recession, county finances were so strained and so many purchases had been delayed that there's now no hope of catching up without extraordinary action.

The five-year bonds he wants to sell, he said, would enable the county to use existing purchasing contracts to get better prices, and to get the equipment before next winter. Waiting until the next budget cycle would mean more delays and more down time and repair expenses.

"This purchase does not represent a long-term change in policy, but rather a one-time deviation because of special circumstances," Wacks said.

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