The county will build a new auto-maintenance shop, with the goal of saving more money by taking care of more county vehicles in house and at cost.
At their last meeting, county commissioners awarded a $456,000 contract for the new fleet services building to G&G Builders Inc., a Johnston County company. Sheriff Steve Bizzell will pay for the building out of savings in his budget.
The current auto shop, on North Bright Leaf Boulevard in Smithfield, maintains 170 county vehicles with a single car lift and a staff of one. Most of the vehicles – 122 of them – belong to the sheriff’s office; the rest belong to various county departments, including Animal Services and Social Services.
The new auto shop, with four car lifts and a staff of three, will be able to maintain up to 210 vehicles. The county will convert the current building to storage.
Bizzell called the new auto shop a project that was years in the making. He said he grew up on a farm, where he was used to repairing his own vehicles. When he became sheriff, Bizzell began looking for ways to do the same in his own department, which has the largest fleet in the county.
Combined, the sheriff said, his vehicles drive 6,200 miles a day. “You can see that we have a need for preventative maintenance,” he said.
Bizzell happened upon the current auto shop by chance. Driving along Bright Leaf Boulevard, he spotted a former farmers’ market shelter owned by the county and saw the potential to turn it into a maintenance shop. So he brought his tractor, mowed the grass that had grown up beneath the shelter, replaced the roof, poured concrete, enclosed the structure and added garage doors. He used discretionary dollars in his budget to pay for the renovations and buy equipment, including a car lift.
Bizzell also hired Larry Braswell, who at the time worked for a Deacon Jones dealership. Bizzell said a secretary in his office had retired, so he split up her duties among other staff and used those dollars to hire Braswell.
The auto shop opened in mid 2008 for sheriff’s vehicles only. About a year later, it began maintaining cars from other county departments, charging them a fee at-cost for the maintenance. Braswell does all the work, including oil changes and tire rotations every 5,000 miles and transmission service every 35,000 miles. He also installs break pads and new tires, bought at the state contract price. He does almost all repairs except for rebuilding engines and transmissions.
Because of the maintenance, county vehicles have been able to last for more miles, Bizzell said. Before, his patrol cars lasted about 120,000 miles before he sold them at auction. Now he gets about 150,000 to 165,000 miles per vehicle.
“I was able to do that because of the quality of service being done to the vehicles,” Bizzell said.
Thanks to the stretched out life of each car, Bizzell didn’t need to buy new vehicles last year. Instead, he’s using that money for the new building.
Bizzell said he is proud of the project because the auto shop saves money by providing preventative maintenance for county-owned vehicles.
“I try to be a good steward of the taxpayer’s money,” he said. “We may be a government agency, but we don’t have to act like one. We can actually do this with a sensible approach, keeping in mind who’s paying the bill, and that’s the taxpayer.”
Bizzell said it’s not just saving money that’s important; he trusts Braswell’s pride in his work and knows each vehicle is safe when it leaves the shop.
With construction of the new building, Bizzell plans to hire two more people. He will once again shuffle duties in his department to fund the first, and he hopes other county agencies will do the same to fund the second.
Braswell said he welcomed the larger building and additional staffers. “With other people, it will be a more efficient shop,” he said.
Of maintaining all 170 cars himself, Braswell said, “It’s learning how to schedule.”
Ernie Wilkinson, director of Animal Services, said using the county’s auto shop saves him about 35 to 40 percent on his maintenance budget. “That’s big money to me,” he said. “I have nine vehicles in our fleet and four of which run a lot of miles daily.”
Wilkinson said safety is more important and knows he can trust Braswell’s work. “When people role out of his shop, they are in a safe vehicle,” he said.