When keeping up with all of the tasks required for public works, organizing and managing fleets of vehicles can be difficult. Some local governments have opted to outsource their fleets while many others are still undecided on the matter or have opted to keep everything in-house.
Last November, the Allentown City Council in Pennsylvania made the decision — in a 5-1 vote — to outsource fleet maintenance services for all city departments by entering into a three-year contract with a company called Centerra Integrated Services for $7 million. The vote came after the city rejected a counter proposal by the Service Employees International Union, which claimed it could save the city $420,000 over the life of the contract. Craig Messinger, the director of public works for Allentown, had calculated a loss of $300,000 each year with SEIU’s contract.
Allentown is not alone when it comes to outsourcing as other larger regions are switching to privatized fleet management in order to avoid the complicated aspects of owning many vehicles.
Perhaps the most obvious benefit of outsourcing is that municipalities can save both money and stress in an extended fiscal period by not having to worry about the employment of drivers in some cases, vehicle repairs and upkeep.
When a separate company takes care of the drivers and vehicles needed for city jobs, municipalities are reassured that the personnel and vehicles are best of the line. While the primary service that these companies provide is the machinery needed, the human resources aspect of the decision is also beneficial. With less employees to manage, less wages to allocate and less time spent managing these workers, the municipalities can return to the higher priority items. Decreased risk for injury is another advantage that governments and municipalities consider.
Vehicles and technology change rapidly, and when governments and municipalities hire in-house employees, the resources provided are sometimes out of date or inefficient. Gas prices, parts repair and the expected upkeeps — like oil changes, tire rotations, cleaning, etc. — add up. Other factors, like federal and local laws and regulations, are also handled by the fleet management service. Governments and municipalities can focus on the task at hand rather than making sure their vehicles and drivers are compliant with Insurance Services Office, Environmental Protection Agency and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Some public institutions stick with their in-house vehicles and staff for the sake of saving money. In Fort Mill, S.C., where the population only reaches 16,000 residents, operating vehicles owned by the municipality is easier. The Southeastern Governmental Fleet Managers Association regional director and Fort Mill director of public works, Davy Broom, explained that all vehicles in the municipality are maintained, repaired and operated by in-house workers. The city has two mechanics at its disposal in addition to the fuel, oil and parts that maintenance required.
“The only thing we outsource is our diesel vehicles,” Broom said. “In this area, finding diesel workers is difficult. We find that it’s much easier to use a company’s diesel vehicles where we don’t have to find mechanics and resources from a long distance.”
Fort Mill is a small town, and when a vehicle is down, the drivers must use older, less safe vehicles while their normal one is being repaired. For this reason, Broom said, “Our drivers really have to go above and beyond the normal expectations. They really take care of their vehicles to minimize days with tight schedules and a smaller fleet.”
Other potential problems inform these decisions as well.
Clemson University in Pickens, S.C., operates closely with the local government to provide services for nearby property and research locations. William Smoak, the regional director and board member for SGFMA and the farm manager in dairy research farm services for the university, discussed the unique reasons why its fleet management system is in-house.
“Since the university discontinued the old fleet system, each department is now responsible for its fleets separately. My department, research farm services, has our own mechanic, and we have one certified mechanic that works at one station in particular. Some of the other departments outsource any problems they have.”
The experiences explained by Broom and Smoak clarify that the decision is truly based on the size, needs and location of the municipality. For smaller cities with limited resources and a small range of work, caring for vehicles in-house makes more sense.
While having less people to manage is simpler for those cities that choose to outsource fleet services, the forfeited control is certainly not. Choosing a company that holds its drivers to high standards and trusted integrity is imperative. The dialogue between the municipality, the company and the drivers requires more energy and strategic communication. Establishing the accountability between drivers and directors takes work and commitment. Even Fort Mill, which only outsources a handful of vehicles, takes the time to communicate effectively.
“We respect our diesel partners’ time and appreciate their help in minimizing costs,” Broom said. “They have jobs to do, too, and we understand that we aren’t their only customers and try to work as a team.”
Through their roles at SGFMA, Broom and Smoak likes to take advantage of the opportunities the association offers, such as training sessions. These sessions offer valuable insight on fleet management for free to those who are members of the organization.
“We try to go to as many as possible,” Broom said. “We save money in the future by learning about our vehicles and management in the training.”
SGFMA training sessions range from information on engine repairs and diagnostics to emission control and purchase strategies. Smoak agreed that Clemson University fleet managers are participating in the training sessions as much as possible. The training sessions are primarily focused on newer technology, which is sometimes difficult to apply to the vehicles in Pickens.
“Our fleets are a little older,” Smoak said. “I’ve been trying to get more guys to go, especially when they’re nearby and relevant to our fleet. When it does benefit us, we definitely take advantage of the training sessions.”
Through training sessions, city fleets personnel can learn how to save money in the long run and get the resources necessary to tackle any challenge.