South Lake Tahoe purchasing new ladder truck, hiring 2 more police officers | TahoeDailyTribune.com

South Lake Tahoe purchasing new ladder truck, hiring 2 more police officers

This photo shows what the new ladder truck may look like.
City of South Lake Tahoe

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — City Council approved several expenditures Tuesday intended to improve public safety, which council has identified as a top budget priority.

With a pair of 4-0 votes (Councilor Cody Bass was absent), council signed off on a purchase agreement for a new $1.2 million ladder truck for the fire department and agreed to increase the police force by two positions.

The additional positions in the police department are needed to help address what Chief Brian Uhler described as “chronic understaffing.” That has led to having a minimum amount of officers on duty, extended response times and surging overtime costs in recent years.

The problem is multi-layered, Uhler explained. In response to budget issues at the city eight years ago, the police department moved toward leaner staffing levels. In the years since, officers have been lost through retirement or to other law enforcement agencies.

Staffing issues reached a critical level in the summer and fall of 2018 when three officers left to work for other agencies and two other officers were sidelined due to injuries suffered while responding to a fight call, Uhler wrote in his staff report.

During the 91 days of summer that year, a total of 8,973 calls were made. Of those, an officer was unavailable for 196 calls.

Because of the lengthy amount of time it takes to find, hire and train qualified officers, the police department has struggled to keep pace with the turnover. Currently only 22 of its 30 officer positions are staffed and capable of performing full, independent duties — although two are completing their training and should be in the field soon.

By increasing the total number of officer positions by two, the hope is that the police department can start the process of filling those positions and be more prepared to handle retirements and other departures within the ranks.

The estimated cost for the two new positions for the rest of the 2018-19 fiscal year, which runs through September, is $93,590. Going forward, the annual cost is expected to total approximately $280,774.

A portion of that cost — approximately $80,000 — could be recovered by money saved on overtime. Uhler believes that is a conservative number and the actual savings could be much more.

In 2017-18 the department spent $524,988 on overtime. For the current fiscal year through May 19, the department has spent $465,801 on overtime.

Staff estimates an additional $100,000 can be absorbed by salary savings. The remaining $100,000 would be an additional ongoing expense within the department’s budget each year.

Several members of the South Lake Tahoe Police Officers Association spoke in favor of the two additional positions. They framed the issues as being able to provide adequate services to the people of South Lake Tahoe, which is a struggle at the current staffing levels. At the same time, that does not mean requirements and training standards should be diminished.

City Manager Frank Rush Jr. said he would work toward council’s stated budget priorities, which include police.

“I truly believe we’re understaffed in the police department and we’re going to try to improve that going forward,” he said.

New ladder truck

Council initially allocated about $1.2 million for a new ladder truck, which will replace a defective truck that was the source of a legal dispute, in March.

The actual purchase agreement was postponed until a lawsuit with the manufacturer of the defective truck, Ferrara Fire Apparatus Inc., was resolved.

The city reached a settlement agreement earlier this month that saw Ferrara pay the city $1.755 million in exchange for the city returning the truck.

As South Lake Tahoe Fire Rescue interim Chief Jim Drennan explained Tuesday, the city had to pay the remainder of the loan on the defective truck.

After accounting for attorney fees and the loan balance for the old truck, the city is left with a balance of $1.18 million from the lawsuit settlement.

The money will be returned to the unrestricted general fund reserves, which is where council took the initial $1.2 million allocated in March. Since that time, the estimated cost for the new ladder truck has risen by about $20,000, Drennan said.

The resolution that was approved by council also allows the city manager to approve up to $61,002 in change orders should they be necessary during the build process.

Purchasing a ladder truck is much more different than purchasing a regular vehicle, Drennan told council. The trucks are truly tailored for the needs of individual departments.

The estimated build time is 300 to 330 calendar days, according to Drennan’s staff report.

Asked by Councilor Devin Middlebrook if there are added assurances to prevent a situation similar to what happened with the defective truck, Drennan said the choice of company was the biggest difference.

Having familiarized himself with Ferrara and with the company building the new truck, Pierce Manufacturing, Drennan said there was no comparing the two.

He pointed to his successful track record in purchasing equipment for the department — which did not include the decision to go with Ferrara for the last ladder truck — in advocating for Pierce.

“I’m more than confident,” he said of the company’s ability to deliver.