Several raised questions Monday about extending the decade-old contract with First Vehicle Services after a former employee made allegations that the firm makes unnecessary repairs.
“When you’ve got a fox in the henhouse, some eggs are going to go missing,” said Commissioner Marion Williams, a longtime proponent of bringing the service back in house.
First Vehicle’s proposed price for a one-year contract renewal is $3.7 million. Adding in noncontract work will bring the total annual price to approximately $5.5 million, said Ron Crowden, the city fleet manager since 2001.
“Why are we doing what we do, and what’s the quality control, with the issues we have going on?” said Commissioner Donnie Smith.
Smith said he had learned about a vehicle whose bumper cover was replaced for a small scratch after going in the shop for an oil change.
“There appears to be a financial gain by finding things that need to be fixed that were not requested by the people that put it in the shop,” Smith said.
Crowden defended the performance of the company, which employs 47 people to maintain the city’s 2,255-vehicle fleet. He said vehicle repairs and maintenance are performed based on a schedule. Each time a car goes in for any service, it gets a bumper-to-bumper inspection. Noncontract work is performed when a vehicle exceeds its scheduled lifespan, which is measured in miles or years and depends on the vehicle.
Each oil change, performed at the manufacturer’s specified intervals, costs the city $12.63. Noncontract work, such as repairs caused by driver abuse, is performed at $22.79 an hour.
“No place in Augusta are you going to find that rate,” Crowden said. “I would put my guys before any guys in Augusta.”
Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle questioned why Crowden increased the fire department’s maintenance allocation by about $240,000 this year, when the department didn’t add any vehicles.
“We have to look out for how we can reduce costs and the mishandling of funds,” he said. “What kills me is it’s in the contract to take the wheels off every time,” when wear on today’s disc brakes is often predictable and plainly visible, Guilfoyle said.
Guilfoyle and Smith want to put the contract back out for bids. Williams wants to hire an employee to create an in-house shop to maintain vehicles.
Savannah, Ga., brought its $3.7 million annual maintenance program in house and lowered its cost to $1.5 million, Williams said.
Columbia County Emergency and Operations Division Director Pam Tucker said Columbia County maintains its entire fleet of about 800 vehicles and machines with an in-house operation whose total annual budget is $790,000. The shop also services vehicles for the city of Harlem under a separate contract and could take on additional contracts, Tucker said.
Augusta Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier said he trusts Crowden’s judgment about repairs.
“I’ve found him to be very conscious of saving money,” Wiedemeier said. “He looks after our money like it was his own.”
City Administrator Fred Russell said he was OK with sending the contract back out for bids but questioned the wisdom of bringing the work back in house.
“I think there’s probably room for improvement with everything,” Russell said. “If we do it internally and we don’t like it, it’s harder to fire them.”
Crowden said in-house maintenance work was possible, but bringing parts acquisition under city procurement would be tedious.
“If we could keep our current technicians, we could do that job, but if you’re looking for efficiency, the government’s not known for efficiency,” he said. “I think repairs would take longer.”