By Peter Roper
The Pueblo Chieftain
PUEBLO, Colo. — Talk about an odd link between cops and robbers — Pueblo police get new police cruisers only when there is enough money in the city's federal forfeiture fund to purchase a few.
That's money that comes from the department taking part in federal drug arrests, where seized property can be sold.
"We never know how much money will be in that fund from year to year," said Deputy Chief Michael Bennett. "We haven't budgeted any money in 2014 to purchase new patrol cars."
The Pueblo department has a fleet of 202 vehicles, including 98 marked cruisers. Among those patrol cars, 23 were purchased in the past three years. The other 75 are older, some dating back to 1997. That's ancient in terms of police vehicles, which frequently hit 100,000 miles or more in just a couple of years.
Some of the cruisers look even worse than their high mileage, with paint peeling off the hoods and bodies. City Council discussed the problem a few weeks ago, scolding themselves that it was embarrassing that some patrol cars looked so shabby.
Traditionally, police departments don't repaint cars. Cruisers typically are replaced long before they would need a paint job.
But the Pueblo department is repainting cars now, at $1,500 per car.
The fact is, the city doesn't have a police car replacement plan except for the federal forfeiture money, which can pay for a few cars in a big year. A fully equipped patrol cruiser costs $45,000 and Bennett hopes the forfeiture fund totals $300,000 this year.
But new cars come second there as well. The first $60,000 in forfeiture money each year goes to support the department's narcotics investigations unit.
So why hasn't the city established an annual patrol car replacement program? Bennett said that's never been the case in his eight years overseeing the department budget.
City Manager Sam Azad said Pueblo's approach is unusual — although he believes many cities have cut back purchases and get longer use from police cars since the 2007 recession. Azad used to be a finance officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department and said that department did have an annual replacement policy.
"I do intend to propose a vehicle replacement program to council," Azad said last week.
Former City Manager Dave Galli recalled that voters were asked on occasion to let the city keep excess tax revenue on the condition that money be spent on new police cars.
"Or we might get a grant and buy some that way," he said. "It's easy for council to create a policy. The hard part is for council to make that annual budget appropriation."
An example of that was in 2009 when the city received a $315,000 insurance check for hail damage to city cars and property. Council spent all of it on fixing City Hall's roof.
Bennett said an ideal policy would buy 20 to 25 new police cars a year, turning over the fleet every four or five years.
"These cars are harddriven. After three years, a patrol car is truly an old car," he said.
Copyright 2014 The Pueblo Chieftain
McClatchy-Tribune News Service