Wednesday December 19, 2012

VERNON -- Cruiser issues continue to plague Vernon's police department.

After months of debate about whether to replace an aging Ford Crown Victoria, officials now say a newer Dodge Charger may have serious mechanical issues.

That means two of the department's three cruisers are less than reliable. And it is spurring a discussion about the town's ability to pay for new police vehicles as well as the feasibility of a new town requirement that cruisers should last nine years before replacement.

"Clearly, these cars aren't going to make nine years," said Patty O'Donnell, Vernon Selectboard chairwoman.

The Crown Victoria, a 2005 model, already would have been due for replacement under previous guidelines. But voters at March's Town Meeting, while authorizing three vehicles for the police department, also authorized the new, nine-year replacement policy.

Police Chief Mary Beth Hebert has pushed for a new cruiser, saying the Ford has mechanical problems and high mileage. She also points out that sufficient money already has been allocated for a new car.

But the town's finance committee has said the car has not reached the end of its useful life, and a majority of the Selectboard has agreed.

On Monday, officials disclosed that the department's 2007 Charger -- which is not due for replacement until 2015/16 -- may have transmission problems.

"Now, we're thinking that the Dodge wasn't a good purchase when we got it, and it isn't going to go the nine years," Selectboard member Bob Miller said.

Hebert added that the Charger is "not holding up well." And she's concerned about the department's fleet.

"Now, we've got two vehicles that need to be replaced," Hebert said. "And that's exactly the situation I didn't want to be in."

However, there is not enough cash allocated in the town's capital plan to buy two vehicles. The current plan has $35,000 available specifically for replacing the Crown Victoria.

There is only $9,625 for replacement of the Dodge. Another $9,625 is due to be available as of July 1.

In total, that means there will be $54,250 available for police cruisers when the new fiscal year begins. At Monday's Selectboard meeting, that led to some discussion about stretching that money so that it could cover two cars.

"It would be reasonable to go with two less-expensive vehicles," Miller said.

O'Donnell and others said the police department should research vehicle options.

But there are two complications. First, finance committee Chairwoman Marylynn Scherlin said cash allocated for the two cruisers cannot simply be combined without a formal modification of the capital plan at town meeting.

Also, Hebert said police cruisers are highly specialized vehicles. She wonders whether a cheaper or used car would be adaptable to regular police work.

"I'm going to look into it and see what I can come up with," Hebert said. "But our experience with vehicles is, you can't cut corners."

She added, however, that "I want to do what we can to save money."

Selectboard members also discussed two other cruiser-related issues Monday, saying they intend to adopt guidelines to clarify the definition of "end of useful life" while also implementing a regular maintenance schedule.

That schedule, some officials said, may go a long way toward extending the life of a cruiser.

"That's something that should have been done a long time ago," O'Donnell said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.