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Hernando rethinks hybrid choice

Concerns about cost and unpaved roads lead the Sheriff's Office to decide against buying any more.

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published July 9, 2006


BROOKSVILLE - The Hernando County Sheriff's Office decided to run a little experiment back in 2003. It bought two Toyota hybrids at just under $20,000 apiece and tested them against the Ford Taurus.

Now, three years later, the number of hybrids on Florida's roads has grown significantly, and industry experts say there are as many as 450 hybrids in Florida government fleets.

But the Hernando Sheriff's Office has decided not to buy any more of them, said Maj. Royce Decker, who oversees the department's fleet.

He blames the number of unpaved roads, the maintenance costs and the high purchase price of the cars for the department's decision not to pursue Priuses.

"I can get three Tauruses for the price of two Priuses," Decker said. "If we were a metropolitan area like the city of Clearwater, hybrids might be right for us, but we don't have enough hard-top roads."

The Toyota Prius is the most popular hybrid car on the market and accounts for about 90 percent of hybrid government sales, according to Chris Wilson, government fleet sales manager for Alan Jay Automotive Network in Sebring.

The car blends power from an electric battery and a standard gasoline engine to get better fuel mileage, but it is not known for its speed, power or off-road capabilities.

While the majority of the department's fleet is made up of police-issue Ford Crown Victorias, there are about 40 slots for cars that don't have to be capable of high-speed pursuits.

That's where the hybrids come in.

At the Hernando Sheriff's Office, the two Priuses are used for dropping off files at the courthouse and performing other nonemergency functions.

For example, deputies who travel out of the county for training take the hybrids for better gas mileage, Decker said. Together, the two cars have racked up 91,000 miles at an average of 32 to 38 miles per gallon.

The competition for the hybrids is the Ford Taurus, which sells for about $12,000 - $7,500 less than a Prius.

It doesn't get the same gas mileage, but it's so much cheaper to purchase than the hybrid and so much more durable that it makes sense financially, Decker said: "You have to look at functionality and longevity."

Elsewhere in Hernando, the county considered buying hybrids for its fleet, but the County Commission decided against it because of the price, according to public works director Charles Mixson, who oversees the fleet.

"We didn't see a lot of cost savings, and the board was a little concerned that they weren't American cars," Mixson said.

While hybrids haven't really taken off in Hernando, many other municipalities and government agencies are buying more of them.

The Clearwater Police Department has seven hybrids - in a rainbow of colors from gold and silver to black, blue, brown, and red - and is looking to buy more, said Rick Carnley, the city's assistant director of general services.

"We've been overly satisfied with them," he said.

At the Marion County Sheriff's Office, fleet manager Wyatt Earp - whose great-uncle was the famous Wyatt Earp - said it takes only five or six years for his hybrids' fuel savings to make up for the extra purchase price.

His department has 10.

Lt. Jenell Atlas, spokeswoman for the Martin County Sheriff's Office, drives a hybrid and loves it.

"We believe, for us, it is environmentally conscious and money saving," she said. Her department has 17 Toyota and eight Honda hybrids.

The hybrids have made inroads at the South Florida Water Management District, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and a number of public universities. But the biggest customer statewide is Miami-Dade County.

"They've purchased 150, and next year they are seeking to get another 150," said Marc Spoto, public relations representative for Southeast Toyota Distributors.