- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Crumpled fenders, broken lights, blown air bags and bent bumpers have idled dozens of District of Columbia police cars, some of them almost new, because the city has run out of money for fleet-repair work.

The cruisers, most needing more than $1,200 worth of body work, are piling up in police parking lots all over town because Brender Gregory, director of business services, has put a freeze on repairs, police employees said.

The $1,200 threshold has forced police to park almost-new cruisers that, for example, might have come out of a minor collision with nothing more than a broken grille and two inflated air bags. The air bags, however, cost $500 each to replace.

Fifteen of the cars, most with minor damage, have been warehoused at the Blue Plains Impound Lot among the rows of wrecks and stolen cars found on the city streets. Another 15 cruisers with minor damage are also parked on the third floor of fleet maintenance at 1501 S. Capitol St. SW.

And almost every unit in the city reports damaged cars have been parked for months on their lots waiting for repairs. Police employees estimate about 60 of the department's 1,300 vehicles are now awaiting minor repairs.

The repair-work freeze has created a shortage of vehicles, and now officers are using patrol cars that are 5 and 6 years old that were scheduled to be sold for salvage.

"Before long, we'll be walking a beat again," said a police officer. "It has never been this bad before. We could always get scout cars."

Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the department is trying to contain costs. But he added that there needs to be further review on the $1,200 cap if the repairs are minor.

"We may need to look and see if the threshold is realistic," Chief Ramsey said. "We can raise the threshold."

He said he is in a "no-win situation." If he repairs all the body damage he will go over budget, but if he doesn't authorize the repairs, he has expensive equipment sitting around unused.

"I would love to fix them all," Chief Ramsey said.

The chief said he wants to build a driver's training center with other agencies so officers will be better trained and have fewer wrecks. He also said that the older cruisers that are being sent to the field are just loaner cars that will be replaced when new cars become available.

The officers are driving old cars while 50 new Ford Crown Victorias sit parked and unused on the second floor of the fleet-maintenance building.

The new cars have not been distributed because no one has figured out whether they should be marked or unmarked cars.

In September, The Times found that 33 new white $24,000 Crown Victorias sat in an unsecured field in Southwest for over a month.

The confusion surrounding the city's fleet operation continued Monday with the resignation of Claude Willis, manager of fleet maintenance. Mr. Willis handed in his two weeks' notice yesterday. He quit, according to sources, because of conflicts with Miss Gregory and "micromanagement" from superiors.

Mr. Willis would not comment when reached at his office yesterday.

Chief Ramsey said that Mr. Willis was a career government employee and he did not know the reason for his departure. He said the position will be filled after the job is advertised.

Fleet maintenance has been in turmoil since November 1999, when the department stopped using its own employees to fix cars and hired a private company to do the repairs. But halfway through 2000, the department realized it was running out of money to pay the company.

The Washington Times first reported Oct. 10 that fleet maintenance had run over its $3.5 million annual budget by almost $1 million and the department had deferred repairs on many police cars.

In November, the police department contracted with Serco to repair its vehicles for $3.5 million per year. But the car-maintenance company ran up a bill of $4.4 million through the end of the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2000.

Police officers and employees said Serco takes too long to make minor mechanical repairs.

A D.C. Council Judiciary Committee report released in December said that problems with the contract began early because police department officials failed to closely monitor the contract. The Judiciary Committee began the investigation after The Washington Times reported the cost overruns.

The committee also found that the contract was plagued with problems because department officials failed to follow the recommendation of four consultants who said in-house fleet services had to be improved before hiring an outside contractor.

Mr. Willis became fleet manager about a year ago, when former manager Robert Rose was placed on paid suspension after the department discovered that some new police cars were being put into service without being inspected by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Mr. Rose returned to another position in the department after an investigation found he did nothing wrong.

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