Municipal Fleets: A whole new ballgame

July 1, 1999
Finding mechanics to work on diverse equipment tops list of challengesIn the harsh, unyielding public spotlight, today's municipal fleet managers must find a way to do more with less. It's a challenge made all the more complex by the huge diversity of equipment in their fleets. Everything from cars to weedwackers. Or as one fleet manager put it, "If it's got a motor and wheels, I've got it."Today's

Finding mechanics to work on diverse equipment tops list of challenges

In the harsh, unyielding public spotlight, today's municipal fleet managers must find a way to do more with less. It's a challenge made all the more complex by the huge diversity of equipment in their fleets. Everything from cars to weedwackers. Or as one fleet manager put it, "If it's got a motor and wheels, I've got it."

Today's successful municipal fleet managers have taken on a new proactive business strategy that enables them to satisfy the often harsh, if not contradictory, customer base (i.e. taxpayers) that expects reliable and efficient service at the lowest price.

"We live in a glass house," says Tom Serfass, fleet supervisor, City of Decatur, Ill. "Government is being run more like a business."

Maintenance In this new business reality, maintenance has emerged as the top issue. Municipal fleets typically hold on to their equipment longer than most other fleets, thus increasing the amount of maintenance needed to keep them up and running.

The diverse equipment pool is a double-edged sword. Many fleet executives believe that mechanics are attracted to shops with so many different kinds of equipment. But in an era of fierce labor shortages, finding mechanics qualified to work on the wide range of equipment is problematic.

Complicating the diversity within the fleet is an often arcane bidding process in which too much weight has been placed on low bids, leading to a proliferation of different makes and models within the fleet. However, today's fleet managers are becoming a little smarter in the way they spec equipment.

Take the City of Decatur. With 310 pieces of equipment, Serfass must make sure his mechanics are trained on a diversity of equipment so their troubleshooting and repair skills are efficient. But that's easier said than done, given the increasing complexity of equipment technology and specialized diagnostic tools in use today. So Serfass looks to his dealer network for answers. A typical bid sheet now includes two hours of operator training and four hours of maintenance training.

Vehicle acquisition Historically, municipalities have been an easy target for elected officials trying to squeeze a few dollars out of the budget. But municipal fleets have struck back with solid equipment acquisition and disposal strategies.

In the City of Decatur, "useful life for each piece of equipment is established at time of acquisition," Serfass says. "We establish a cost per mile and cost per hour by classification, and link that with historical data on the individual cost elements." At the end of the term, units are evaluated to determine whether they're ready to be traded in.

Serfass has also developed a solid bidding process for new equipment.

While he normally goes with the low bid, he writes the specs to allow for some flexibility. "I look at total costs and not just initial price tag to see what it is costing us to perform that activity."

Outsourcing The debate on doing more with less has led Paul Hinderaker, director of equipment services, City of Ames, Iowa, to consider outsourcing for his fleet of 260 pieces of rolling stock and 450 supplemental bodies.

"We're spending public dollars, so we have to determine whether to service the fleet in-house or out," says Hinderaker. "The biggest problem is getting vendors to see that the city wants quality work, not just low-ball prices."

The search for efficiency has led the City of Ames to Jiffy Lube, where it has set up preferential pricing. Hinderaker has found that oil changes are more convenient, cheaper, and better. And mechanics are free to work on heavy-equipment problems, which generally must be done in-house.

The need for efficiency also played a role in getting the fleet involved in performing maintenance for the Community Life Program, a social services program.

According to Dave Burnside, fleet manager, Yavapai County, Ariz., "Government should be able to do it cheaper than private enterprise because we don't have boards of directors or shareholders. All we have to do is break even. If we don't, it means we're just not managing things properly."

About the Author

Tom Moore

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