One thing is certain: The city vehicle replacement “target” needs to be re-examined, and everyone needs to be made aware that there is no policy or hard-and-fast 10-year replacement program.

Gardner City Council members recently approved the purchase of a more than $20,000 half-ton truck to replace a 13-year-old Ford Ranger.

According to city staff, one-third of the vehicle’s $5,664 in maintenance had occurred in the last two years.

However, staff told council members the repairs included brake lines, computer repair diagnostics and routine service.

This seemed like an awfully high expense for a truck simply used to shuttle employees from different wastewater sites. That money the city claims to have spent would almost pay for a new transmission and a new engine. (And if those two items were replaced, it would be silly to buy a new vehicle.)

When The Gardner News requested detailed maintenance records for the truck, we learned that more than half of the truck’s total maintenance costs – approximately $2,888 –  are listed as “overhead.” Or, according to city staff, that’s the cost of salary, benefit, services, and commodities related to fleet maintenance. In other words, city staff took the number of hours used to do oil changes, replace brake lines and other general maintenance items and figured the cost of employing a staff member to do the job.

The cost of that employee isn’t going away with the purchase of a newer, bigger truck.

City staff’s inference to city council members – that the truck was on its last legs and had myriad problems due to the high maintenance costs over the past two years – was grossly misleading.

Although initially on the consent agenda, a portion of the agenda that bundles items considered routine into one approval motion, council member Chris Morrow had the forethought to have the purchase of a replacement vehicle removed so council could discuss the $20,000-plus purchase.

Staff members explained that the truck in question was manufactured in 1998. It had 141,000 miles on it and was primarily used to ferry employees, and the occasional part, between city wastewater sites.

Staff said old trucks tend to rust out, although they admitted the body of the truck in question was in decent condition. They argued that the city has a vehicle program that replaces vehicles after 10 years. They’d put the replacement of the 13-year-old truck on hold for two years already.

Additionally, they said the truck in question was “tired.”

Mayor Dave Drovetta argued that the council created the vehicle replacement “target” to prevent having to buy new vehicles all at once.

“This process allows you to budget over time in small bits every year,” Drovetta said.

Unfortunately, no one mentioned that the “target” was not a set policy, properly vetted by a council. It was instead more of a suggestion or guideline. The council members The Gardner News contacted were under the impression that the city does indeed have such a policy, although one doesn’t exist.

Staff and the mayor also argued that council budgeted for the new vehicle purchase when they approved this year’s budget last summer.

They failed to mention that a common refrain during the budget process is, “Even if we budget for it, that doesn’t mean we have to spend it.”

Sadly, as the year progresses, that’s rarely the tone city officials take. Instead, they use the argument that they already approved the expenditure and budgeted for it, so they may as well do it.

The purchase of one new $20,000 vehicle isn’t going to decimate the city’s budget. But we’ve heard numerous complaints about how dismal the city’s revenues have been – property values are down. Sales tax numbers are scraping by.

Unfortunately, Morrow and council member Larry Fotovich were the only two to vote against making the purchase. The other three council members were easily swayed by the concerns of city staff.

The typical American family wouldn’t buy a new truck in this situation unless they’d just won the lottery, and neither should the city.

But the purchase itself isn’t the most concerning aspect of this story. It speaks to a more troubling problem – what appears to be willful misleading on the part of city staff.

In the very same meeting, the mayor demanded that council not micromange city staff. We would agree that’s wise. However, if it appears staff is misleading council, the reins need to be tightened, and that’s the job city council members were elected to do.