SPRINGFIELD – Even a program that has put on the road thousands of new state police vehicles financed by a dedicated motorists’ fee has been caught up in the Illinois state budget debacle.
A vehicle-registration surcharge that has raised $58 million and transformed the Illinois State Police fleet from a junkyard of overtaxed hulks to a stable of safe and more efficient cruisers is stalled because of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s moratorium on vehicle purchases.
An Associated Press analysis of records obtained under the Illinois Freedom of Information shows the program has been successful in regularly removing from the highway pursuit vehicles that have surpassed their useful, cost-efficient and safe lifespans. A 2003 report maintained by the AP includes a squad car with 900,000 miles.
The Rauner administration is reluctant to talk about it. The state police finally responded to AP inquiries last week, saying the Republican governor’s executive order to reduce spending has stalled purchases; those being outfitted now were purchased under former Gov. Pat Quinn.
The 2008 law, sponsored by former state Rep. Jim Sacia, has produced more than 2,100 new squad cards and millions of dollars’ worth of lights, radios and other emergency equipment.
Traditionally, the state budgeted for routine police-vehicle replacements, but the tough fiscal times that hit in 2003 – and that have never quite abated – pushed the cars further.
“There were literal horror stories of state police responding to a critical incident and the car breaking down on the way, and they had to call a municipal officer to cover it,” said Sacia, a Republican from Pecatonica. “The danger factor was just utterly amazing.”
An analysis of state-fleet reports that the AP has maintained from FOIA requests during the past decade shows encouraging numbers from the program’s regular vehicle replacement – officials recommend retirement after four years or 80,000 miles.
The AP calculation shows that, at its worst in the spring of 2005, the entire state police fleet of 2,285 automobiles was, on average, 6.2 years old with an average of 112,841 miles. Nearly 75 percent of the fleet had more than 80,000 miles.
As of this October, the 2,337 vehicles in the fleet averaged 3.8 years in age and just 62,607 miles. Only 36 percent of the vehicles’ odometers topped the 80,000 mark.
“It makes all kinds of good sense,” said Eugene O’Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. “People can see the direct benefit and it’s carved out and the money is for an exclusive purpose and it’s relatively painless for the motorist.”
But state police spokesman Matthew Boerwinkle said Rauner’s executive order prohibiting the purchase of new vehicles includes those financed with dedicated funds.
Boerwinkle said 72 Ford Interceptors that arrived this year were purchased in 2014 by outgoing Gov. Pat Quinn. No money from the fleet fund has been spent since Rauner’s arrival – its balance has grown to $6.5 million. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview state police Director Leo Schmitz or troopers who have benefited from the program.
In October 2008, just weeks before the law was signed, 639 police vehicles – about one in four – was off the road for repairs, said Boerwinkle, who issued a statement Friday saying the fund provides “safe, reliable and efficient transportation” and reduces overall expenses during a patrol car’s life cycle.
A 2003 report showed that one police squad car had 902,586 miles – enough to drive it from the Wisconsin border to the Kentucky border and back more than 1,000 times.
“It was a small price to pay to put safe squad cars on the road and to put our state police in vehicles that they can be proud of,” said Sacia, a former FBI agent who, during 12 years in the House, often pressed law enforcement legislation.
It also provides something that’s rarely found in Illinois state budgeting: Certainty.
Christopher Sawchuk, principal and global procurement advisory practice leader for The Hackett Group, based in Miami, said buyers with revenue predictability can drive the deal.
“Predictability is worth a lot,” Sawchuk said. “What I would expect that they would be able to do is go back to those entities that they’re buying from and say, ‘Because of that predictability, I expect a better deal – better terms, better prices.”
The idea might be catching on: The Virginia Senate endorsed a $1.25 vehicle-registration surcharge for public-safety spending last winter but the House has taken no action.
O’Donnell predicted cash-strapped Illinois might turn to the surcharge for a bigger bang.
“If it’s so easy and painless, what does it take to make it $2, or $3?” O’Donnell asked. “It’s the kind of thing that actually builds trust in taxation and fees because you can see where it goes.”