COLUMBIA — Engines roar as mechanics climb under buses, inside the trunks of police cars and onto the tops of fire engines. Eighteen of the 20 bays at the city of Columbia's fleet operations shop are filled with all sorts of vehicles, including para-transit vans, garbage trucks and street sweepers.
It’s just another day at the garage at the city's Grissum Building on Lakeview Avenue, where 17 mechanics repair more than 900 vehicles or pieces of heavy equipment every month. The Fleet Operations Division of the Public Works Department must balance the need to run its shop as a business and fill its public safety role.
If there's a disruption in the commercial market, Fleet Operations is expected to meet the fuel and vehicle maintenance demands of police and firefighters, manager Eric Evans said. That's one reason that adequate funding for additional employees in Fleet Operations should be a priority, he said.
The budget for the fiscal 2011 year, which is subject to a final public hearing and a vote by the Columbia City Council on Monday night, calls for a total Fleet Operations budget of $7.11 million for the next fiscal year, up slightly from this year's budget of $7.06 million.
The budget calls for adding a mechanic, a parts clerk and a data entry person. Evans said that would allow Fleet Operations to do more work internally rather than sending vehicles to outside commercial garages.
“Last year our costs were reduced by $300,000 with the addition of the night shift,” Evans said.
Mechanics for the city work either day or night shifts totaling at least 40 hours per week.
“There is no downtime," Evans said. "We always have a backlog of vehicles waiting to come into the shop.”
The city cannot hire just anyone for these jobs. Mechanics have to have considerable experience, rather than coming to the city straight out of school.
“It’s certainly a skilled position," Evans said. "These guys work very hard. When it’s hotter than hell out, they are ... doing hard labor."
Corey Roberts, 23, got his training during vocational technical classes in high school, at Lincoln College of Technology in Indianapolis, and on the job at Bob McCosh Chevrolet.
“It's pretty good working here. I work on something different every time,” Roberts, who has worked for the city for more than two years, said.
City mechanics have to work not only on different types of vehicles but also on gasoline, diesel and hybrid engines. They also have to work on propane powered equipment such as generators and forklifts, Evans said. Some mechanics develop a specialty.
However, there are mechanics who have come from or grown into a specialty, and prefer certain vehicles.
“My favorite are gas because that’s what I grew up on,” Roberts said.
Most of the mechanics said garbage trucks are the worst to work on because of the dirt and grime, but Roberts said buses are worse because of the way they're engineered. Fire trucks, however, are his least favorite because he has to study so much to work on their electronics.
Dwayne Crites has been working at the city garage for eight and a half years. He said he dislikes working on garbage trucks because they get caked with mud during the winter. His specialties are fire trucks and engines.
Once, Crites was called to the scene of a fire to work on the city's Sutphen Snozzle, which sends a 65-foot boom into the air, full of water. It is stabilized by metal feet that extend from the sides of the truck, but on this occasion the feet wouldn't retract so that the Snozzle could return to the station.
When asked how he felt about a new mechanic being hired, Crites said, “I am fine with it. Yeah, there will be plenty of work.”
Tim Derryberry likes electronics, too. He works in the body shop and adds power for laptops, lights, sirens and GPS in policecars, fire trucks and pickups.
“The vehicles come here black and white,” Derryberry said. It's his job to modify the vehicles, then to repair the electronics as necessary.
“Any police car with a radio or siren problem comes straight to me,” Derryberry said. He works overtime, if necessary, to get them done.
Outside the service shop and past the body shop, there are two fueling stations, one for gasoline and one for biodiesel. The driver of a recycling truck places a key into a slot and punches in some numbers. He's recording hours and mileage, Evans said.
“This is an advantage to doing our own fuel. We can track maintenance,” Evans said.
City employees are assigned to a city fuel station, but Fleet Operations maintains a very low markup on fuel: the cost of fuel plus a minimum of 5 percent, Evans said. The city can keep the price low because it doesn't charge sales tax.
Evans said he and others in the city are always looking for ways to cut costs. That's one reason the city is exploring whether to switch some vehicles to compressed natural gas.
“Based on the current energy crisis, CNG is becoming more attractive," Evans said. "It is less costly and a much cleaner fuel as well.” However, he said one problem is that the closest compressed natural gas fueling stations are in St. Louis and Kansas City.
Back inside the Grissum Building, Fleet Operations also operates an enormous parts store with more than 4,400 different parts, hundreds of tires and a machine for making hydraulic hoses.
“Our parts value is in excess of $400,000," Evans said.
Fleet Operations’ goal is to be prepared for any type of disruption to commercial supply.
“We want to make sure we are self sufficient,” Evans said.