ERWIN — Drug and theft investigations, domestic situations and automobile accidents consume much of local law enforcement’s time to be sure, but Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Ronnie Adkins said one of the most difficult issues he deals with on a daily basis comes from within his department.
Adkins said it has been four years since vehicles were last purchased for the UCSD, leading to what he now calls a “desperate situation.”
The Unicoi County Commission’s Finance Committee recently lent its approval to the UCSD budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. Not included within that approved budget is funding for the purchase of new vehicles for the department, but UCSD officials remain hopeful that action will be taken in the new fiscal year to help alleviate the department’s ongoing vehicle issues.
There has been recent speculation and questions by area citizens as to exactly how many vehicles the UCSD has in its fleet, with some conjecturing the department has as many as 70 vehicles. Late last week, Adkins presented Unicoi County Commissioners with a list of vehicles in the UCSD and the names of the officers and employees assigned to each.
According to that list, the department has a total of 37 vehicles in its fleet. However, Adkins said two are set to be sold at the next county auction. This would bring the department’s total fleet of vehicles to 35, assuming that a vehicle lost over the past week due to engine problems is eventually repaired.
“To me, that’s not an unreasonable number,” Adkins said. “To me, that’s a conservative number.”
The newest vehicles listed are seven 2008 models, which are assigned to patrol officers. Four patrol officers are assigned 2000 or older model vehicles, with another patrol officer assigned a 2007 vehicle. The remainder of the list is made up of vehicles assigned to investigators, court officers and other officers and employees, with the years of these vehicles ranging from 2005 to 1989.
“We have no new cars at all,” Adkins said.
Adkins said newer vehicles would allow the UCSD to stay within its maintenance and repair budget. He also said patrol officers put an average of around 300 miles on a vehicle per shift.
“When you start putting 108,000 miles a year on some of these cars 10 years old, they just can’t make it,” Adkins said.
Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris previously sought more than $330,000 in county funding on top of his department’s operating budget for the purchase of 12 new cruisers. The sheriff said the UCSD has 12 cruisers with more than 130,000 miles on each. Under state guidelines, vehicles with this type of mileage are pulled “off the line” due to officer safety and liability concerns, Harris said.
Since then, concessions have been made in the UCSD’s requests, but Adkins said the need for new vehicles is still great. Adkins said he would like to see four cars purchased this year, with a rotation system implemented in subsequent years in which two new cars would be purchased annually in order to “weed out” older vehicles and maintain the department’s fleet.
“We’re not trying to build up the number of our fleet, we’re trying to build up the quality,” Adkins said. “The quantity’s fine, it’s just that the quality is bad.”
Unicoi County Commissioner and Finance Committee Chair Bill Hensley said the county may explore the possibility of taking out a capital outlay note for the purchase of UCSD vehicles, but questions as to how this note would be repaid still need to be answered. Hensley also said he would like to receive a cost estimate on four vehicles but said the county’s budget may be passed before the issue is further addressed.
“It may be that we’ll have to set this budget and then address those concerns about the vehicles,” Hensley said.
UCSD Administrative Assistant Robie Sullins said the UCSD may also explore utilizing drug fund money to help with the purchase of vehicles and take some of the burden off county taxpayers.
Whether funding comes from the county or the UCSD drug fund, Adkins said new vehicles are needed soon.
“If we don’t spend some money now, we’re going to be spending it later because we’re still going to have the same problem we’ve got now, only to a greater extent,” Adkins said. “Week by week, the longer this thing goes without us getting cars, the worse it’s getting.”