As tight as municipal budgets are these days, one would think that local police departments would hang on to their squad cars and other vehicles as long as possible before getting rid of them.
And in most area communities, that's exactly what happens.
Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Bayside and Mequon departments typically wait until their police vehicles have at least 100,000 miles before replacing them.
But the Fox Point Police Department retires its cars much earlier — usually when they hit about 65,000 miles. And while Police Chief Tom Czaja says his department is saving money by doing so, his North Shore counterparts aren't sure that's the case.
“The average Fox Point vehicle has about 65,000 miles before we trade it in,” said Czaja. “One of the reasons we turn them in is because squads seem to have problems. Transmissions go out or something like that, and the cost to repair them, either with a new component or a used one, outweighs the cost of just auctioning them off.”
Czaja said his cars are replaced after every two years, and keeping them longer would actually cost the department more because of repair expenses .
“Our budget is cut down to the line considering the state budget right now,” explained Czaja. “I’m really being conservative when it comes to spending as little as possible.
"We just had one squad with 65,000 when the transmission went," he added. "We sold it at auction with a bad transmission in it. In past years, we've had other problems where manifolds crack, too."
Others question Fox Point's policy
But other North Shore departments continue operating their squads until they at least have 100,000 miles on the odometer.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find any other agency that does what they’re doing,” said Bayside Police Chief Bruce Resnick, who said his department doesn't even think of getting rid of cars until they have at least 100,000 miles on them. “If it was smart, why wouldn’t everyone be doing it? If the police cars at the auction have low mileage, usually they’re totaled from an accident or something.”
Whitefish Bay Police Chief Robert Jacobs said his department used to get rid of its squads after two years, usually when they had about 85,000 miles. But that's changed.
"We now trade the vehicles in based on mileage and state of repair," he said. "And patrol vehicles are more likely to be three years old and have approximately 125,000 on the odometer when replaced."
Jacobs added that he didn't have an opinion on Fox Point's policy of trading cars in sooner.
In Mequon, Police Chief Steve Graff said his department puts its vehicles up for auction based on mileage.
"Seeing as we have 47 square miles to cover, it takes about two years to accumulate 100,000 miles per car," he said. "But we don’t just get rid of them because it has been two years. I have to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers, yet make sure that the officers have reliable and safe vehicles."
Graff added: "I think 65,000 miles would be a bit premature to change over the squads."
Other costs can add up
Graff and other area police chiefs noted that when a department gets rid of a vehicle, it not only has to deal with purchasing a new one but also has to spend money on setting up that new squad with lights, radios and more.
"In addition to the cost of replacing the vehicles, the stripping of equipment and outfitting the new vehicles with marking is in the $3,000 to $3,500 range," Resnick said. "This is another reason to keep the vehicles longer."
The same view was echoed by Shorewood Police Chief David Banaszynski, who said his department keeps its squads until they hit the 100,000-mile mark.
When the department gets rid of an old car and purchases a new one, it has to take numerous pieces of equipment — like the radio, the lights, the sirens and gun rack — out of the old squad and reinstall them in the new one.
"This is very expensive and time consuming," Banszynski said. "If we sold the old squad with 65,000 miles, we might get more (in an auction), but would it cover all of the cost and time? I doubt it."
Size of coverage area a factor
Czaja said the size of a municipality needs to be taken into consideration when looking at when a department should replace its squad cars.
He noted that vehicle rotations done by most North Shore communities are around two years, and that the mileage of those cars can vary based on the size of the community.
"Fox Point is 2.8 square miles; Mequon is 52 square miles," Czaja said. "So when you take a look at that, Shorewood is larger than Fox Point and Whitefish Bay is larger than Fox Point. When you have a larger area to patrol, you'll naturally have (more) miles."
Czaja said if the department replaces a transmission, for example, that costs about $3,400, which is more than one-third of the department's $10,000 maintenance budget.
Although Czaja mentioned that transmission problems can start to crop up after a car hits 65,000 miles, a representative from in Fox Point who said he has worked on squad cars said problems associated with that low mileage are unusual.
Resnick, the Bayside chief, said his department has its squad cars' transmission fluid replaced by a company that then adds a transmission warranty up to 150,000 miles. Resnick said it costs a few hundred dollars, but the department never needs to buy a replacement transmission.
Regardless the concerns raised by others, Czaja said he is confident he is doing the right thing for Fox Point and its taxpayers.
“Sometimes we think about auctioning them off after another year of use, but the vehicles could have 75,000 miles on them at that point,” said Czaja. “In reality, we’re saving money.”