The Investigators: Under The Hood

The Investigators: Under The Hood
(Source: WAFB)
(Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - A taxpayer-funded garage in downtown Baton Rouge is where the majority of city agencies take their vehicles for service. The lot services 76 different departments, including agencies like EMS, city leaders and more. The Baton Rouge Police Department makes up the biggest chunk of their services.

Since taxpayers are picking up the tab, the Investigators requested copies of all the work orders for just last year alone. Going through more than 15,000 orders, the Investigators reviewed information like the services performed, vehicle, agency and, most importantly, the cost and how long it took.

David Childress came on about six months ago as the director of fleet management for the city-parish. He said their services are billed by the cost of materials plus the standard labor rate. Last year, labor was $58 per hour. This year, it went up to $68 per hour.

"I have to charge the rates that are needed to pay for my overhead," said Childress.

Childress said they have city contracts so they can buy the parts in bulk and at a discount, and then they add a 20 percent markup to those parts.

Kiran: "What is the purpose of a mark-up? Is the purpose of this lot to service city vehicles or to make a profit?"
Childress: "No, we do not make a profit. That's one thing as an internal service dept, it's a pass through. I've got to pay for the people who go out and get the part."

Of the thousands of work orders the Investigators looked through, some stood out, especially oil changes since prices ranged from $17 to $200.

How does that compare to other places?

A 2011 Ford Fusion was kept at the Department of Public Works, or "Central Garage," for 28 days for "multiple problems." An oil change alone cost $203.04. In comparison, a private garage quoted $57 and the Ford dealership quoted $48 for an oil change for the same vehicle. Both said labor should take less than an hour. However, DPW's garage charged three hours of labor.

Kiran: "The material cost for an oil change is $19. The labor cost on that oil change is $184."
Childress: "I will tell you on paper, that looks bad."
Kiran: "An oil change for a 2008 Dodge Durango by the city lot is costing $122 whereas another private repair shop said we charge $33.50."
Childress: "Are we just changing the oil, which they do, or are they doing a preventive maintenance inspection behind it? I can't tell you what was actually done on that vehicle but on paper, yes it looks bad."

However, the private garage said their prices also include a preventative inspection.

The Investigators found examples of different prices for the exact same service on the same type of vehicle. For example, on two 2013 Ford Explorers, an oil change for one was $65 and on another, it was $17.

It is examples like that that the Investigators found repeatedly for all sorts of services.

The Investigators also found two police cars in to replace their catalytic converters and exhaust systems - one of them kept in the shop for more than a month.

"Even though it sat here for 37 days, it might not have been sitting in my shop. It might have been back there in fleet and they were making the decision whether they want to repair that vehicle or not," said Childress.

In comparison, the private repair shop quoted $618 for the same job and said they needed about an hour and a half, not days.

"We switched over from central garage for the city probably 10 to 12 years ago," said Major Reggie Brown, the Baton Rouge City Constable.

Since then, Brown has taken all of his city vehicles to a private shop, Simpson's, instead of the city lot and said he has zero complaints.

He added city lot takes too long, costs too much, and when he only has about 30 vehicles in his fleet, he can not afford to leave his cars at the lot for days. In fact, he said since he switched over a decade ago to Simpson's, he's been able to save so much money that the leftover cash is how he can buy more than just one vehicle per year for his department.

"We'll be able to probably end up getting three vehicles this year, but we were only allocated to get one out of the general fund budget," said Major Brown.

Kiran: "Do you see yourself ever going back to city lot?" 
Major Brown: At this point, I would say no."

Some Baton Rouge police officers also refuse to use city lot. Instead they go to places like Rapid Lube on Essen Lane to get their police cars serviced and pay for it with their own money.

"I think one of the biggest complaints is the time factor of getting in, getting serviced and getting their unit back out," said Rapid Lube owner Jerry Hix. "They've also expressed they don't like going to the city, that stuff gets missing out of the unit or people get in their units."

The Investigators told Hix some of city's lots prices for an oil change.

"That is way, what I would consider above and beyond and I would feel like it would be a waste of taxpayer dollars," said Hix. "I am charging again $37.98 for a five-quart conventional change and that's a profit."

The Investigators took all those concerns back to Childress.

Kiran: "Have things been stolen out of vehicles?"
Childress: "Not that I know of."

As to the long wait and excessive costs, Childress said a lot has to do with the previous administration and how they used their software, which he said is very outdated.

In some cases, he said work orders are opened but never closed, making it looks like a car was kept for weeks or months when that was not the case.

"The issue I had when I first came here is that they would group everything together so if they did a preventive oil maintenance or an oil change and they needed to replace brakes, they charged it under the same work order. That's not happening now," said Childress.

Childress said that was the case in some of the examples the Investigators pointed out, but he said he is working hard to change city lot's reputation.

Kiran: "Do you agree things need to change here?"
Childress: "Absolutely."
Kiran: "Is there the possibility that this lot could be privatized?"
Childress: "Yes."

Childress said in what appears to be a $200 oil change, that vehicle went in for several things, but the mechanic grouped it all under oil change and that's what Childress said he's changing. Childress has received emails, including one from BRPD Assistant Chief David Hamilton complimenting him on how much better his experience was from just a few months ago and that it only took him 30 minutes for an oil change.

Childress said it took years to get to the point they are at now. He said it will take him time to correct everything, but he plans to fix all the issues.

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