More than a year ago, Travis County officials decided to switch the standard sheriff’s patrol car from sedans to SUVs — so far costing taxpayers an additional $1.2 million.
The decision, made by a staff committee, surprised County Judge Sam Biscoe. He will ask his commissioners court colleagues to vote Tuesday on whether to continue buying the more expensive Chevrolet Tahoes, which, fully equipped, cost about $9,000 more apiece than the now-discontinued Ford Crown Victorias.
When Biscoe first heard about the change in July, he said he wanted to “be on record as opposing it.”
“I don’t remember approving this, and if I did, it was hidden from me,” Biscoe told county staffers at the time.
After later hearing the reasoning for the pick, Biscoe said Monday, he couldn’t find the facts to change course.
“I don’t have a better idea, and I’m really kind of stuck with this one,” Biscoe said.
From the switch in late 2011 through September 2012, the county bought 55 Tahoes, which each cost about $46,100 with the full gear and lights, and officials plan to buy 66 through the end of next months, at a cost of about $45,000 each. This compares to the Crown Victoria sedans that each cost about $35,750 in 2011. Altogether, those 121 Tahoes cost about $1.2 million more than the old sedans did.
The rest of the department’s roughly 300 vehicle patrol fleet would become Tahoes within the next two to three years. Two Constables offices have also started using Tahoes.
The switch didn’t require commissioners’ approval, but Biscoe said he wants the sheriff’s office and officials who manage the county’s fleet of vehicles to publicly explain their reasoning for the SUVs and have the commissioners vote on whether to approve the costlier move.
Staffers have cited several reasons: The Tahoe has higher ground clearance and more interior space for equipment than some other sedan options. The Tahoe also had a successful track record as a patrol vehicle with other agencies.
Gas mileage was close, too: The Tahoe averages 17 mpg, while the 2011 Crown Victorias got 19 mpg, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Staffers considered the Chevrolet Impala and Caprice, Dodge Charger, a smaller Ford sedan and the Ford SUV recently selected by Austin Police. The smaller Impala and Charger cost less than the Tahoes; and the Caprice, which is comparably sized to a Crown Victoria, costs more than a Tahoe, said Sydnia Crosbie, the lead financial analyst in the county’s transportation and natural resources department.
The vehicles by themselves are closer in price — a Tahoe costs $27,240, compared to $24,344 for a Crown Victoria — but adding the necessary law enforcement equipment costs about $6,300 more on a Tahoe than it did for the discontinued sedans.
Tahoes need an extra $1,000 worth of lights, a $300 cage to separate the back seat from the rear storage area and a $1,800 vault to secure weapons and other valuable equipment that is usually stored in a trunk, among other extra costs, according to county documents.
Enough Tahoes have been ordered to replace about a third of the sheriff’s department’s fleet and officials expect to continue phasing them in as Crown Victorias are replaced. Supervisors have been driving Tahoes since 2006, sheriff’s office spokesman Roger Wade said.
The sedans can be replaced after three years in patrol use. Old Crown Victorias are then often used by investigators or other officers who don’t patrol, Wade said.
Earlier this month, the Austin Police Department rolled out its new patrol vehicles, Ford Utility Interceptors, also SUVs. Officials touted their safety and fuel efficiency. Their combined gas mileage is 18 mpg, according to Ford. The vehicles cost about $62,000 each with equipment, according to Travis County.
Since Ford stopped building the ubiquitous sedans in 2011, law enforcement departments around the state have been looking into how to replace them. According to data collected by Travis County, Bexar, Tarrant, Hays and Williamson counties, as well as the state Department of Public Safety, have all switched to the Tahoe as their standard patrol vehicle. Harris County has not decided.