WEST FARGO — While the effects of a nearly yearlong pandemic are mostly negative, the West Fargo police have found a positive in it. The department will soon use more than $600,000 of its 2020 budget to replace a number of aging squad vehicles.
Chief Denis Otterness asked the City Commission for permission to use the unused funds for vehicles at its Jan. 4 meeting.
Otterness said the department will replace three aging vehicles in its patrol fleet, or vehicles used for service calls and traffic stops, for example. He will also purchase two unmarked vehicles for detectives in the West Fargo investigations division.
He will also add additional safety features to the current police parking lot such as fencing after the department saw members of the public monitoring and trying to record officers driving their personal vehicles as they arrived or left for duty.
Otterness said using the unused funds now would prevent him from having a "big ask" in the 2022 budget talks, when a number of vehicles may need to be replaced.
The department's total 2021 budget is about $9.5 million.
The roughly $600,000 in unused funds added up from a number of different line items, but the largest budget areas that Otterness was able to pull from were unused salaries and benefits, training and supplies.
While the West Fargo Police Department generally holds a healthy training budget to continue officer education as well as keep officers up to date on licensing requirements, most in-person training had to be canceled in 2020.
"There were savings across several different funds," Otterness said. "For the most part, it was salary and benefit savings from positions that went unfilled. One of them was mine. A lot of it was COVID-related because I know at least in my case, the process I was involved in ran about six to eight months."
Live interviews for the two police chief candidates were slowed earlier this year due to the pandemic. Otterness said hiring police officers is generally an extensive process that takes a longer amount of time, but the pandemic stretched that out even further.
Otterness' purchases are expected to cost about $481,000.
"I won't be using that full $600,000," he said.
The vehicles will likely arrive later this spring.
"The ones with the higher mileage — dangerously high in mileage — will be auctioned off," Otterness said. "We're not necessarily adding vehicles to our fleet; we're just swapping out the ones not safe to drive anymore."
While Otterness opted to upgrade the department's fleet, the Fargo Police department is considering investing in body cameras for officers.
Otterness said at this time he is not considering body cameras, but that may change in the future.
"As of now, we don't have plans for working on body camera project, because we are satisfied with the dash cameras and recorders our officers carry," Otterness said. "It's certainly something down the road we will be exploring."