Public Safety

Iowa public safety car repairs hit 5-year high of $850,000

Deer crashes and hail damage cited as biggest factors in increase

Iowa State Patrol cars usually are Dodge Chargers. Several are parked Oct. 12 outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics near Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City before a football game. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)
Iowa State Patrol cars usually are Dodge Chargers. Several are parked Oct. 12 outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics near Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City before a football game. (Lyle Muller/IowaWatch)

Vehicles for the Iowa Department of Public Safety — including the cruisers used by state troopers — sustained a five-year high of $849,878 worth of damage in 2018, department officials said.

Although only six more incidents were reported in 2018 than in 2017 — 220 vs. 214 — the total damage reported in 2017 came to just $519,429, or $330,449 less than in 2018. The total damage for the combined years was $1.37 million.

The cost of repairs may sound like a lot, said Lt. Rick Pierce, commander of Iowa State Patrol Fleet and Supply, but the department — which includes the Division of Criminal Investigation, the State Fire Marshal and other operations besides the Iowa State Patrol — has a fleet of about 650 vehicles.

The most common cause of damage was “act of nature,” including at least 59 crashes involving deer reported in both 2017 and 2018, funding requests sent to the Executive Council of Iowa show. Hail damage was the second-most common with 36 incidents reported in the same time span, records examined by IowaWatch showed.

Pierce did not give a specific explanation for why the cost was significantly higher in 2018, but said reasons could be an increase in pursuits or worse damage from hail or deer collisions.

Agency works to minimize costs

The agency does what it can to minimize the public’s cost, including selling old equipment and salvaging usable materials from cars taken out of operation, Pierce said.

“We really seek to try to build the safest cars, and at the same time, be as responsible as we can with the taxpayers’ funds — we really do try to save everything we can,” he said.

Another factor in the cost of the damages is beyond the cause or the vehicle, but in where repairs are done. Although the department owns a more than 3,000-square-foot shop in Des Moines, no repairs are done there, Pierce said. The shop is for storage, salvage and installation of equipment.

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All repairs to vehicles are done by businesses — often dealerships — approved by the state as vendors. Repairs are done as quickly as possible, Pierce said, with Fleet and Supply approving them.

More than $500,000 of the repair costs were reimbursed by the state for 2017 and 2018 via the Executive Council of Iowa, which reimburses costs when damage is a result of vandalism, theft or an act of nature that results in at least $2,000 of damage.

The Executive Council is made up of Gov. Kim Reynolds, Secretary of State Paul Pate, State Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig and State Auditor Rob Sand.

Insurance covers most repair costs

Insurance paid for most of the repair costs over the two-year period.

The state seeks reimbursement from the other driver in vehicle collisions in which that motorist is found liable. State insurance pays when a department official is found liable.

Jim Wittenwyler, director of the administrative services division of the Department of Public Safety, submits a request to the council for reimbursement if the damage is more than $2,000 and falls within categories that qualify for Executive Council reimbursement.

While the public does not foot all the bill for damage, reimbursement from the state comes from a fund that is mainly tax dollars. The state’s self-insurance for the Department of Public Safety is paid for from the state general fund that is 94 percent personal tax dollars and 6 percent corporate income taxes.

Dodge chargers more prone to damage

Nine of every 10 Iowa State Patrol vehicles are Dodge Chargers, which cost more than $23,000 apiece and are equipped with thousands of dollars in hardware to make it fit for service, Pierce said.

Dodge Chargers are a sedan-style car that ride low to the ground, making them susceptible to damage.

“The thing with the Dodge Charger, it runs low in the front end,” Pierce said. “If you sneeze on the front end of a Dodge Charger, you’ll cause at least $1,500 of damage.”

Pierce said he likes the Dodge Charger and it’s a good car, but incidents like crashes involving raccoons cost more than when the now-discontinued Ford Crown Victoria was the patrol’s vehicle of choice. This is evident in a $3,005 repair for a crash involving a raccoon on Jan. 30, 2017, an Executive Council of Iowa document showed.

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The vehicle’s low profile can lead to protective skid plates being ripped from the undercarriage of the vehicles when crossing medians, Pierce said.

How much more damage reported in recent years than when the Ford Crown Victoria was still in use by Iowa State Patrol was not evident in available records. Records were not computerized before 2014, Pierce said.

More incidents were reported in 2017 and 2018, plus the average cost per incident was $1,101 higher than it was in the two-year period of 2014 and 2015, an analysis of information Pierce provided showed.

While the cost of vehicles increases over time, the annual average for total damages was $684,500 for 2017 and 2018, which is $289,238 higher than the average annual cost in 2014 and 2015, the analysis showed.

This article was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a nonprofit, news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at www.IowaWatch.org.

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