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Have Idling Sheriff Cars Wasted More than $1 Million?


In direct violation of county policy, Santa Barbara Sheriff’s deputies often leave their patrol cars idling when they’re parked, a practice that has burned more than $1.25 million in gas and generated tons of emissions since 2008. Those are the findings of a short but pointed Grand Jury report published this week that took the Sheriff’s Office to task for “unnecessary cost to the county’s taxpayers.”

In their defense, Sheriff’s officials explained to the Grand Jury that patrol cars are left idling because their computer systems — including dash cams — need to be on at all times. Plus, they said, if a car is turned off and the computers shut down, it takes three to four minutes for them to boot back up. That’s an unacceptably long amount of time, especially in an emergency situation, officials said.

“This explanation ignores several concerns,” the Grand Jury stated in its report. An unattended and idling car, even if its locked, is vulnerable to theft, and the vehicles contain expensive equipment and at least two guns, the report reads. The vehicles are also retired earlier than usual because of the added wear and tear on their engines. That’s on top of the fiscal and environmental concerns.

The county policy, drafted in 2008 to reduce pollution and wasted fuel, states that keys shouldn’t be left in unattended vehicles and that cars shouldn’t idle for more than five straight minutes, except under certain circumstances. “None of the exemptions, except for K-9 vehicles, appears to apply to non-emergency situations,” asserts the report, which included the following calculations performed last year by the county’s Department of General Services: The Sheriff’s Office deploys 30 patrol units per shift, and there are two shifts per day. The deputies drive 4.6-liter V8 Crown Victorias that use around 0.8 gallons of gas for every hour they idle. Pricing fuel at $4.05 per gallon, and estimating that vehicles idle an average of three hours every shift, the General Services staff said the idling fuel cost is $583 a day, or $207,152 a year.

A new “Secure-Idle” battery monitoring system was installed in a single patrol car in March — it features an alarm and “auto start” feature that’s supposed to reduce overall idling time — and the trial period was expected to take around a month. It’s not clear how it panned out. The Grand Jury also noted other options are available to the Sheriff’s Office to fix the problem, like alternate, uninterruptible power sources that would keep the computer systems on even if the car is turned off. It would cost around $36,000 to equip the entire patrol fleet with such devices, the Grand Jury estimated.

Accusing the Sheriff’s Office of dragging its feet to enact some kind of remedy, the Grand Jury said it “encourages” the agency to come up with savings solutions with “more vigor.” Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover said the agency is in the process of responding to the report — it has 60 days to officially address the findings — and is unable to comment at this time.

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