Car troubles in Weare have police idling 

  • A 2014 Ford Interceptor Utility sits outside the Weare Police Department. The vehicle is among 81,000 being recalled by Ford for faulty rear suspension toe links. May 5, 2016. NICK STOICO / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/6/2016 12:10:36 AM

If Weare residents have noticed a drop in police presence around town in the last few weeks, rest assured the officers are still at work and answering calls – but their cruisers are not. 

Thousands of dollars are being spent on repairs for cruisers across the department’s eight-vehicle fleet. And for the last three weeks, the department has had just one vehicle in service – an unmarked 2008 Ford Taurus that is primarily used by police Chief Sean Kelly.

“All others are off the road for repairs,” Kelly said, adding that the department expects to get two cruisers back on the road Friday. 

More than $17,000 has been spent repairing cruisers in the last three weeks, Kelly said. Voters at town meeting in March voted down an article asking for five new police cruisers. Contingent on that article’s rejection, $17,000 was added to the police department’s budget specifically earmarked for repairs. That budget totals at $30,000.

“For a community of this size, that is a lot of money,” Kelly said. “If we spend the full $30,000, that’s more than a new car would cost us.”

Cruisers have been in and out of service since the March vote with several issues from head gasket leaks to suspension problems. Toward the end of fiscal year 2015, Kelly says he made the “conscious decision” to defer expensive repairs that did not require immediate attention in the interest of saving money. He wrote in an email that this decision was made “with the apparent support of the community leaning toward fleet replacement at town meeting in 2016.”

Since the article was rejected, all the work that was needed before is being done now with some new problems thrown into the mix. 

Recently, the department’s 2014 Ford Interceptor Utility was among 81,000 vehicles recalled for problems with the rear suspension toe links that led to steering issues. But the parts aren’t available from Ford until July, leaving the fleet’s newest vehicle sitting on the lot for the next three months.

“The only thing that can be done until next town meeting is repair the vehicles,” said select board Vice Chairman Tom Clow. “Even though that means a lot of money going into older vehicles, there is nothing else we can do. There is no way to get different vehicles.”

Marc Phillips, a Weare mechanic who has been working on the police department’s fleet since 2014, said the vehicles are not so much a concern of safety but of reliability.

“The wheels aren’t going to fall off,” Phillips said. “Reliability is the issue more than anything – making sure when they get a call and get in the car, it’s ready to go.”

As the department has operated with just one vehicle in service for the last few weeks, the department has relied on mutual aid from departments in abutting towns. The car is unmarked and lacks many of the features a standard marked police vehicle has, such as plastic seats in the back or a partition for prisoner transport.

It doesn’t cost the town when mutual aid is requested, but Kelly wouldn’t be surprised to see a bill come in if Weare were to become “a nuisance” to other towns.

“We’ll return the favor someday,” Kelly said. “Today they help us out, tomorrow we’ll help them.”

Although support from other departments isn’t costing the town, the issues with the fleet are costing taxpayers in more ways than just repairs.

Kelly, a part-time chief who commutes daily from Lebanon, Maine, was given a department vehicle for travel to work as part of his contract. But while his work car has been used for patrol, Kelly has been driving his personal vehicle to work and is being reimbursed 54 cents per mile. The reimbursement rate is based on numbers recommended by the federal government.

At 54 cents per mile, that is a cost of almost $65 per day that Kelly is being reimbursed. The same goes for officers who would typically use a department vehicle for travel to a work-related event such as a certification course. 

“Hopefully that is a short-term thing,” said Clow, adding the chief’s car should be his again with two cars back on the road today.

Kelly will take a seat with the Capital Improvement Program subcommittee when it begins meeting in August, where the heads of various town departments present big ticket items they’d like to get on the warrant for March. If the vehicles aren’t purchased in 2017, Kelly said the department will have to consider renting vehicles, a step he said the department is already getting close to.

Instead, he’s hoping the residents of Weare will support the department and see what he considers to be a dire situation.

“We’ll work with the CIP committee and the (select board) to better inform our voters as to the condition of these cars,” Kelly said. “The critical need for us is to have a replacement plan that is steady and reasonable and cost effective to the town.”

Persuading voters to approve five new cruisers was bound to be a challenge. The department is still fighting its demons from recent years of scandal. Clow said department has turned the page since bringing in new leadership with Kelly in 2014, but he thinks the lingering distrust has put the chief in a challenging position as he tries to build the department back up.

“I know there is good stuff going on there,” Clow said. “We need to get that message out to the community as a whole (by town meeting) next year so the community will support it. It takes time to build that level of trust.”

Police will be back on the roads as vehicles return from service. Kelly just hopes they’ll last until town meeting. He said one car came out of the shop last week, but the engine blew out a day later.

Whether those vehicles can yield a return now is unlikely. In Phillips’s opinion, most cars in the fleet have minimal to no trade value. Besides the Interceptor, which has more than 70,000 miles, the cars “are basically worth nothing.”

“A few hundred dollars, maybe,” Phillips said. “But that’s it.”

The majority of the fleet are Crown Victorias, which Ford stopped building in 2011 and parts are becoming harder to find and replace. Kelly noted the only place they could find replacement seatbelts for one of the Crown Victorias was Ebay.

“It’s important for our residents to understand that we are making every reasonable effort to get these cars back to condition for the rigors of the workplace,” Kelly said.

He added, “If grandma’s car breaks down on the way to beach, she is inconvenienced. If a police vehicle breaks down on the way to an emergency call for help, someone may be in peril.”

 

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3309, nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)


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