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Big bucks lost on Durham trash trucks

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Ever experience that moment of panic when you realize you've mail-ordered the wrong waffle maker or pair of golf shoes? In most scenarios, you're out only the $10 shipping charge to send them back.

But if you're the City of Durham, a mistake like this costs much more, such as the $124,000 the city lost on two new trucks erroneously purchased by the solid waste department for removing residents' bulky items or storm debris.

The city couldn't unload the 2006 Chevy trucks on other nearby municipalities or through an online auction. So instead of scooping up bulky items and downed tree limbs over the past four years, the trucks sat parked, depreciating rapidly, until they were recently auctioned for $29,000 apiece—32 percent of the original price. Each truck had fewer than 1,000 miles on it.

A 68 percent-off sale! A great deal for the buyer, Chapman's Automotive in Hillsborough, which snapped up the trucks at the auction. A bad deal for Durham's taxpayers, who don't like to see government officials make mistakes with their money, a scarce commodity these days.

It turns out the trucks—models equipped with knuckle-boom cranes that hoist large objects to be hauled to the county dump—weren't the exact type of vehicle the solid waste department needed. The design was inefficient for a single driver to pick up residents' bulky trash, said Deputy City Manager Ted Voorhees.

A city employee would have to drive to a resident's house, get out of the driver's seat and climb up several feet into a separate cab to operate the crane and then lower himself or herself back into the driver's seat once the job was done. Plus, Voorhees said, there was less than optimum visibility from the crane operator's cab. 'Nuff said. Not being able to see where you're swinging a large crane = danger.

Although the $124,000 loss is less than 1 percent of the solid waste department's $18.4 million operating budget this year, extra money is always useful. The loss would have paid for two years of solid waste's code-enforcement program, which has three full-time positions.

Who is accountable? Alfred Davis, a previous solid waste department supervisor, purchased the trucks. He left the city years ago to become the city manager of Tuskeegee, Ala. Back then, Voorhees said, Davis wasn't required to consult a chain of command to spend nearly $180,000 on the trucks. Davis didn't return a call seeking comment.

"This is a poor purchase," Voorhees said. It wasn't well thought-out and didn't meet the goals it was intended to achieve, he stated. Had Davis solicited input from other managers or departments, it could have been avoided, Voorhees said.

The year after Davis bought the trucks, the City Council enacted a Fleet Replacement Program to manage and monitor the proper maintenance and replacement of the 2,100-plus vehicles the city uses. Any purchases now have to go through a lot of checkpoints, requiring input from the city's fleet and financial managers.

In other words, there shouldn't be any more $124,000 mistakes, Voorhees said.

Editor's Note: This column is based on public records requests to local, state and federal agencies. Are you curious? We'll submit your public records requests. Send them to editors@indyweek.com.

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