Sheriff's Office buys new vehicles

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Safety and milage a concern

By Lou Elliott Jones

The Levy County Sheriff's Office has purchased six new vehicles — four for its K-9 units and two for the investigative unit for $167,462.80. Sheriff Johnny Smith said he stands behind the decision to replace vehicles that had 100,000 to 150,000 miles on each, including replacement of a car totaled in an accident where the other driver was found to be at fault. Smith said he is aware of how the purchase looks in a tight budget year. And he's aware of the criticism that may come as his office has already been criticized for buying 15 patrol cars, given employees a week's paid vacation and given a pay raise in the past 11 months. Those actions have been mentioned several times in meetings with the Levy County Commission during discussions on the budget for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. "I certainly understand the financial standing of the county but we have to continue to function," Smith said.  He also said it was necessary to replace the worn, high maintence vehicles for officers' safety.  "I would stand behind my decision. We do not pay what Alachua and Marion counties pay. It's the least I can do for my guys. No. 1— It's getting people to come to work for what we pay." The sheriff said his office has been working to find the money for the purchases and benefits within the existing budget. "We've been very frugal this year and I commend (Maj.) Evan Sullivan for what he's done in working with this year's budget," Smith said. "This is very much justifiable. In order for us to do our job we have to have these vehicles to drive around." The sheriff purchased four Chevrolet Tahoes on a state contract for $142,660.80. The K-9 vehicles have four-wheel drive, a remote door opener that allows the officer to release the dog without being at the vehicle, an alarm system that warns the deputy when the vehicle overheats, automatically opens the windows to cool the dog and starts the horn or alarm, plus is configured to allow the deputy to transport a prisons — something that cannot be done in the cars that have been used. Smith pointed out that in addition to saving money by not having to tie up a second deputy and vehicle with prison transport. The remaining two vehicles: a pickup truck, which cost $27,398, was paid out of the budget, and the Ford Crown Victoria which cost $24,129, was paid for using $23,456.58 in proceeds from  a surplus auction, making its final cost: $673. The Crown Victoria replaces a car totaled in a crash in April 2010 in Chiefland when another driver pulled out into the road and and collided with an investigator responding to a burglary call in Fanning Springs. The sheriff's office is in negotiations with the other driver's insurance company for payment on the vehicle that had only 29,000. The four-wheel drive pickup, which cost $27,398, had to be purchased, Smith said, in order to tow a trailer used by investigators in their work. Also it will allow the truck to respond to calls in areas where four-wheel drive is needed. "As you know not every road is paved in Levy County," Smith said. "Many times our patrol cars get stuck and we're having to call somebody to pull us out. There's just a lot of benefits to this." Smith acknowledged it causes some consternation over at the county commission when he and his officers say they cannot cut the budget any more and the county commission has not paid its employees raises in the past three years. "I do see the pressure it puts on them but I understand the pressure that it puts on me as well to provide a service," he said. He said the county has purchased a new vehicle this year and while it has not given pay raises, it pays its employees' health insurance premiums — including the increases for the past three years. "They're paying their health insurance which is much richer than ours," he said. "I think we've managed our money well and Evan (Sullivan) has done a good job on the budget, looking and seeing what he could cut. I understand the financial condition of our county, of our nation and our state. And I understand people are being laid off. But you have understand I did it with the existing resource."