Ventura County May Limit SUV Use by Agencies

Times Staff Writer

Ventura County may become the first local government in California to effectively bar most of its agencies from buying or using gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles under a proposal that goes before the Board of Supervisors today.

Supervisor Steve Bennett, who is behind the restrictions, said it is another way for the county to reduce emissions and save money.

"Any time you can decrease your energy consumption, you have a positive impact on the environment and a positive impact on your budget," he said.

The proposal comes a month after similar legislation was signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis. That law, to take effect in January 2005, requires state agencies requesting an SUV or 4-wheel-drive vehicle to justify a "critical need" for it.

Police and other emergency services that use the state's 73,000-vehicle fleet are exempt.

Ventura County appears to be the only municipality in the state to seriously consider purchase-and-use limitations on SUVs.

"As far as we know, no one else is doing that," said Erin Maurie, spokeswoman for the League of California Cities. "Maybe others will follow. Who knows?"

Government restrictions on SUVs come as critics press their view of the behemoths as symbols of consumer and environmental excess.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have for years been pressuring auto manufacturers to reduce emissions and improve fuel efficiency on newer models.

It would be preferable for the federal government to take the lead in demanding higher efficiency, said Joy Kobayashi, spokeswoman for the Sierra Club's Los Padres chapter. But absent that, California can and has taken the lead, she said.

"Government has a big role to play in setting an example, which this regulation would do," Kobayashi said.

The Ventura County supervisors last year ordered fleet managers to begin replacing mid-size sedans with hybrid-electrics, which offer better fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

County Chief Executive Officer Johnny Johnston drives one, a forest-green Toyota Prius that he calls his "nerdmobile."

Despite that high-profile backing, the county has just 26 hybrids in its 1,500-vehicle fleet. Current hybrid models are often inappropriate for government uses because they are too small, said Tony Patton, the county's fleet manager. The county must wait until standard vehicles wear out before replacing them with more fuel-efficient models, he said.

SUVs make up about 25% of all new-vehicle purchases in the United States, but their fuel efficiency lags far behind other vehicles.

The popular Ford Explorer gets about 15 miles per gallon. A medium-size sedan, by contrast, averages 23 mpg, according to a Ventura County staff report. A Honda Hybrid gets 36 mpg and a Prius gets 43 mpg, the report says.

Ford is planning production of a hybrid version of its Escape mini-SUV late next year, Patton said. Fleet services is delaying the purchase of four mini-SUVs to buy the hybrids, which are expected to get 35 mpg, Patton said.

Bennett, a committed environmentalist, said there are reasons other than political correctness to target SUVs.

"The public has a right to drive whatever it wants, but there is a difference between what the public does and what we do with taxpayers' dollars. We have a duty to be economical whenever we can," he said.

Sheriff Bob Brooks is the biggest SUV user in Ventura County, with 36 of the 116 in the fleet assigned to his office. Bennett's proposal does not exempt public safety departments from justifying their need for an SUV.

Brooks said a few SUVs are used to patrol areas of rugged backcountry that standard patrol cars could not access. But most are assigned to field supervisors, who use the vehicles to lug equipment to crime scene investigations.

"It's basically a field office that they can carry around," Brooks said.

Under the proposal, county departments would have to justify a "substantial need" for an SUV.

The sheriff said he has no problem complying with those rules, but questions whether it will bring any changes to his department.

"I don't know that there's a problem," he said. "Most agencies have been pretty responsible about the type of vehicles they request."

Brian Kelly, policy consultant for state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, said the Democrat was as concerned about cost as about the polluting effects of SUVs and 4-wheel drives in introducing his bill, SB 552, in June.

A standard fleet vehicle costs about $9,000 less than an SUV, Kelly said. An analysis by the state treasurer's office showed that the new policy would save $14 million over four years, he said.

Despite the popularity of current models, Burton is convinced that many California drivers will switch to fuel-efficient SUVs once they become available, Kelly said.

"Most Californians, regardless of party affiliation, care about air quality," he said. "A lot of SUV manufacturers are reading the tea leaves and are responding."

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