The city's police fleet became so dilapidated in late 2000 that two officers often had to double up in a cruiser and patrol two of the city's nine patrol beats with it.
The situation prompted Mayor Irene J. Elia and the City Council to buy 15 new patrol cars the following spring.
But after taking a pounding for two years, the cars are getting old, and the fleet once again is falling into decline. And while it has not occurred often, police officers again have been forced to double up in cars on occasion because of ever-increasing breakdowns, according to police officials.
The problem has prompted the Elia administration last week to initiate stopgap measures to temporarily head off the problem, especially with the busy tourist season and the first-ever casino summer about to get under way.
Police Administrative Capt. Laurel Sheehan said the city is preparing to buy 12 new police cars -- eight for the patrol division and four for other police functions.
And to keep more of the existing fleet on the road, Deputy Police Superintendent John P. DeMarco said city Public Works Director Paul G. Colangelo on Friday assigned a second mechanic to work on the repair and maintenance of police cars.
City Administrator Albert T. Joseph said: "We are putting a bond request together to buy 10 to 12 police vehicles. We haven't made a final decision yet (on the number)."
After meeting with Police Superintendent Christopher J. Carlin and other police officials Friday, Colangelo said, "I'm going to have two full-time mechanics working on police cars to make sure the Police Department always has enough cars and that they are safe to use. Police officer safety is a priority."
Colangelo said there are almost always more than 20 police cars sitting in the City Corporation Yard on New Road waiting to be repaired because he didn't have the manpower.
Now that winter is over, he said, he is able to shift a mechanic off truck repairs to police cars.
"This will help. Where we were only able to get to three cars a day before, we can put out six a day now," Colangelo said.
He also said two of the department's 1998-model cruisers, which have good bodies but burned-out engines, are also under repair. "We're putting new engines in them," he said, a move that should add to the number of dependable vehicles the police Patrol Division will have available.
Sheehan said the move should help in the short run. "It's basically putting a band-aid on a bullet hole," she said.
The problem: "We have a lot of old cars. Some are junk. They're too old. They break down constantly. Many are unsafe," Sheehan said.
Sheehan added the department will to have junk at least 13 vehicles this year.
She said at least four of about 80 police vehicles -- including several vans and three motorcycles -- date to the 1980s, including an unmarked car circa 1983. The newest cars in the fleet are 14 Crown Victorias the city bought in 2001. The 15th car purchased that year was destroyed in an accident. The rest of the fleet starts are 1998 models or older.
"Our department's fleet is the only one in the country that has rust on it because it's so old," she said. "We should probably get rid of half the fleet."
"We had one guy driving around in a car with a hole in the floor. We actually had the drive train fall out of a patrol car last year while an officer was on his way to an emergency call. Some guys are hesitant to report small problems with their patrol cars because they're afraid they won't see them again because it takes so long to get them repaired, and they may have to drive something worse."
Ideally, Sheehan said the city should purchase about 35 new police cars and then budget for a number of new cars each year after that.
Joseph noted Niagara County "replaces a third of its fleet annually."
"If we could do that," he said, "we'd have a sounder fleet and reduce the money we have to spend on maintenance and repairs. Unfortunately we don't have the resources to entertain a project like that at this time. It is one of our goals that we will eventually be able to do that. It's the ideal way to go, but it's very costly to get started."