For public or private fleets, capital requests have to go up the chain of command. Whether that chain is political or corporate, one or ten links long, chances are good the links have plenty of reasons not to approve the expenditures.
Don’t give them more. Execute maintenance plans, keep good records and communicate with, and educate, the decision makers. Anything less can result in a lack of funding—or worse—a lack of trust.
Consider this cautionary tale from Cape Coral, Fla.
John Sullivan is the mayor of Cape Coral, population 157,476. He’s straight talking, staunchly anti-tax, and severely fiscally responsible. If you want city money for new equipment, you’d best prepare to explain why.
Last year, after the city’s fleet department put in a laundry list of capital requests, Sullivan took to his blog, “Straight from the Mayor,” to air the laundry list in public. In addition to calling shenanigans on a request for a new fire truck—and a replacement engine for the very fire truck the new model was meant to replace—he cut this little swath through mowers:
“One thing that jumps out at me are four 2006 mowers that cost $28,120 each,” the mayor wrote. “Those mowers are only six years old. That does not seem like much of a lifespan for such an expensive mower. We also have a couple of 2008 mowers at a cost of $18,357 each. These mowers are only four years old. You would think mowers that are four to six years old should be in pretty good shape if they have been maintained properly…this is all money that is coming out of our residents’ pockets.”
Maintenance. Turns out it was an issue in city hall even before the blog, going back to when Sullivan first took office in 2009.
“We discovered the equipment we had wasn’t being maintained properly,” he says. “Not just heavy equipment, but it goes all the way down to rolling stock on the street, to police cars and fire equipment, which is expensive equipment.
“They let a lot of equipment go to hell for some reason. Well, there are only two reasons: either they didn’t have the capability of fixing it or they wanted to let it go down the drain so they could buy new equipment. Everybody who works with this stuff would rather have brand new stuff,” Sullivan says. “I know contractors out here from private industry that drool over the equipment the city has.”
Strong words. But before you dismiss them as uninformed, anti-spending bluster or some kind of grudge against the fleet department, know that the mayor did his research.
“One of the biggest beefs I have is the maintenance and the records,” Sullivan says.
“At one point, I asked for maintenance records for all the police cars that were on the street. I don’t think city staff wanted to give me those records. When I finally got those records, I was appalled. There was hardly anything there at all as far as the maintenance of these automobiles was concerned,” Sullivan says. “I’m no expert in this field, but I do have my own automobile and know that there are certain maintenance requirements you have to do on a timely basis,” he says. “That goes for anything from an automobile to the biggest piece of heavy equipment—there has to be some kind of maintenance regimen in order to keep that equipment working as effectively as possible.”
Next, without explaining the background, Sullivan e-mailed the records to the owner of three local car repair shops. He simply asked the expert what he thought.
“He came back and said ‘There’s nothing here,’ which is exactly the same thing that struck me,” Sullivan says. “So that tells me that either the proper maintenance wasn’t done, or it wasn’t documented properly, and if it wasn’t documented properly, then how could you possibly maintain that piece of equipment going into the future? The answer is, I believe you can’t.”
Now, who wants to be first in line to ask the mayor and the city council for new machines?
You might as well wear a t-shirt to the meeting that says, “I’m not credible.” (And one of your colleagues could wear one with an arrow pointing at you that says, “I’m with the guy who’s not credible.”)
It gets worse.
“The last two times they bought a piece of equipment, I asked the city manager, ‘Do we have proper maintenance people in place? Are they certified, do they know what they’re doing?’” Sullivan says. “And both times, the answer was no. So the next time they come up to buy another piece of equipment, I’m going to say no, because I’m not going to throw good money after bad.”
When the infamous laundry list for new equipment came before the mayor from the public works and parks and recreation departments, it came without maintenance records, life-cycle cost data, or any numbers-based justification.
What kind of presentation or plea accompanied the request?
“In this particular case, it was a list with dollar signs next to it,” Sullivan says. “They also showed pictures of a piece of equipment that had some rust on it and a [seat] cushion that was all torn up. I called it a Christmas wish list, and that’s exactly what it was, but I don’t think we have a big enough tree to put that stuff under,” he says with a chuckle.
“I’d like to see the maintenance record on that piece of equipment [before considering a replacement]. And I’d like to see it before the council meeting, because I’d like to take it to someone who knows something about maintenance and have them tell me whether we’re doing the right things or not,” Sullivan says.
“Equipment is a big expense and it can be a much bigger expense than it needs to be if the proper maintenance isn’t done. People need to use their heads on these requests; it has to be at a ‘needs’ level rather than a ‘wants’ level.”
This is the mentality and the skepticism you may be facing if you’re not doing your job or presenting your case properly. It could be your CEO or CFO, or it could be a mayor.
Just don’t let it happen to you.