Port Allen chief seeks funds for new police cars

The purchase of vehicles for the Port Allen Police Department will take center stage next week as the City Council ponders whether to amend the recently adopted 2013-14 budget in order to give Police Chief Esdron Brown more than $200,000 to replace a portion of his distressed fleet.

Brown got entangled in a lengthy debate with the council during its committee meetings Wednesday when he presented a request for $32,000 in addition to the $180,000 the council already earmarked in the 2013-14 budget for new police vehicles.

The police chief is asking for the additional $32,000 to lease-purchase and outfit at least six 2015 Chevrolet Tahoes.

Several council members expressed reservations about the leasing program. They even asked Brown to consider purchasing cheaper vehicles since he so desperately needs to replenish his 18-car fleet.

The chief was also given the option by the council of letting the city purchase the vehicles.

“I don’t really know which way to go,” Councilman Garry Hubble, chairman of the council’s finance committee, said Friday. “Some people say leasing is a great thing, others say purchasing is a great thing. But if we lease-purchase them, we’re obligating ourselves to spend a certain amount of money annually for four years or more. None of us have crystal balls to know what sales tax revenue will be in the upcoming years to commit to something like that.”

Brown has spent a year trying to persuade city leaders to replace his entire fleet of vehicles — all at once — through a leasing program.

But Brown’s request got overshadowed by the rift between a majority of the City Council and former mayor Demetric “Deedy” Slaughter.

It was that rift that led to the council’s six-month delay in approving its 2013-14 fiscal year budget.

Since taking office in January 2013, the police chief said, he has led a department struggling with outdated cars that sometimes stall during police calls. He also said he had to permanently park other police vehicles because repair costs were too expensive.

The Police Department fleet has disintegrated over the years because the council became lax in its past practice of replacing police cars by purchasing a few new ones every year.

“I want the leasing program because you get more cars at one time,” Brown said. “Yeah, they’ll have to pay more than $100,000 over four years but we would have had all the vehicles we needed.”

Chief Financial Officer Audrey McCain said Friday the Police Department doesn’t need 18 new vehicles at once for a city Port Allen’s size.

“My concern with a lease is that you commit to this for four or five years, then in five years later you’ll have 18 vehicles all the same age with the same mileage,” McCain said. “Do you can them all, then do this all over again? If that’s the case, when do you stop paying for vehicles? He has the mindset that he has to have this, but he’s wrong.”

McCain thinks the city would fare better by looking at other types of vehicles — like purchasing cars instead of SUVs.

“No one wants to talk about how much gas and insurance is going to cost on these Tahoes,” she said. “These are always the types of concerns of the people who deal with the money, like me.”

Brown does have an ally on the council in Ray Helen Lawrence, who said the council should get the Police Department as many vehicles as the city can afford.

“I’ve seen them jump-starting cars,” she said. “We’re really putting the city’s people at a disadvantage. Their lives could be in jeopardy.”

Hubble said the City Council likely will support giving the police chief the additional $30,000 to purchase six new vehicles. The council will then entertain the notion of setting aside another $180,000 in its 2014-15 budget to purchase another six vehicles for the police department, he said.

“You’re looking at getting 12 vehicles in a short period of time,” Hubble said. “If leasing was a great thing, I’d think everyone would be doing it. I’m adamant about going ahead and making the move right now. Whether we’ll purchase or lease them? I don’t know.”