Dune buggy used for patrols at Oceano Dunes bought during budget crisis; has costly repairs

The state parks department bought this Funco dune buggy for $75,000 - $18,000 more than was originally quoted.
The state parks department bought this Funco dune buggy for $75,000 - $18,000 more than was originally quoted. John Pelonio

Despite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2009 order for state departments to cut their vehicle fleets by 15 percent, the Department of Parks and Recreation won’t be sending one of its favorites to the auction house any time soon.

That would be the sleek and zippy $75,000 Funco “sand rail” dune buggy used by rangers at Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area.The vehicle was purchased despite initial objections during the state’s last budget crisis, according to documents obtained under the Public Records Act.

The parks department has since spent thousands of dollars operating and repairing it after repeated transmission problems, documents show.Though park rangers told state fleet managers they’d rack up about 8,000 miles annually driving it for patrols, it’s been used a fraction of that each year, records show.

State Parks recreational division chief Phil Jenkins defended the purchase, saying rangers needed the “specialized vehicle” for patrols at Oceano Dunes.

Rangers use it to quickly travel to hard-to-reach areas where people venture in powerful off-road vehicles – areas where they misbehave or need emergency medical help after accidents, Jenkins said.

It was 2001 when the parks department first asked to buy a sand rail dune buggy, complete with a turbo engine, from a company called Funco. Price? $57,000. The request was flatly rejected by the Department of General Services’ fleet management unit in early 2002.

“Your request to purchase a sand rail for use at Oceano Dunes SVRA (Special Vehicle Recreation Area) is denied. Issues such as: operator safety, equipment durability, reliability and performance, functionality, warranty, maintenance and cost effectiveness are all questionable,” wrote Rick Shedd, then the DGS assistant chief of fleet administration.

“The high-profile nature of this state-of-the-art sand rail smacks in the face of prudent fiscal policy at a time when budget cutbacks are being implemented,” Shedd added.

DGS Fleet stamped the draft purchase order with “DISAPPROVED” in bold black capital letters.

Shedd’s office offered to work with parks officials to identify alternatives to meet their needs. Yet by May 2002, DGS officials approved it.

The parks department then bought the sand dune buggy in 2003 for a much larger figure than initially proposed – $75,000, state invoices show.Jenkins said General Services officials changed their minds after a procurement staff member toured a park where rangers work. “They showed them why they needed it,” Jenkins said.

That tour is not documented in the file, which does include follow-up documents justifying the purchase.

Parks officials said the new “high-profile” vehicle would have roles well beyond public safety and law enforcement duties, such as attending outdoor shows for the public. The documents suggest it also would be used to provide dune tours for VIPs.

“It will also serve as a public relations tool to facilitate orientation and interpretative tours of the off-highway vehicle units by local and state government officials, representatives, commission members,” one memo added.

General Services’ initial concerns about the reliability and the high cost of maintaining the $75,000 Funco dune buggy proved prophetic.

In June 2005, the transmission blew, costing $2,339 to rebuild. Later that summer, a wheel needed replacing: $185. By November 2005, the transmission was wonky again: $1,477 in repairs.

More spending: $1,519 for spare tires and wheel rims. In 2008, new flagpoles and red and blue flashing lights were bought: $527.93.

By December 2008, there were oil leaks, no third gear due to a transmission problem and the engine failed to start. The bill? Mercifully low: $108.

Jenkins acknowledged the costs, saying he wished it had a “more robust” transmission. “But that’s the risk with these specialized vehicles,” added Jenkins, who said rangers now know how to avoid burning out the transmission.

In 2005, a Senate committee suggested DGS explore new ways to cut costs and eliminate inefficiencies within the state vehicle fleet – including “more rigorous scrutiny of fleet utilization.”

DGS regulations require state vehicles rack up at least 6,000 miles a year or risk being declared “underutilized” and face disposal at auction.When they bought it, parks told DGS that the buggy would clock 8,000 miles a year.

By the end of year one, it had travelled just 878 miles, mileage logs show. By 2005, only 1,902 total miles.

Ranger Andrew Zilke said his staff now uses the buggy only as “a fair weather vehicle” and “periodically,” during peak summer seasons and holiday long weekends. “In all truthfulness, the intent was to use it more,” Zilke added.

Jenkins said transmission problems and scarce availability of repair technicians sidelined the buggy a lot, but he added that taxpayers shouldn’t fret about its cost.

The machine was bought using money from a department trust fund that collects fees from off-highway vehicle registrations, special vehicle recreation area entrance fees, and a gas tax – paid for by park users.

California Parks spokesman Roy Stearns said the dune buggy is one of several tools available to rangers.

“I’m sure if we didn’t have one and couldn’t get to critical places for emergency rescues, we’d hear about it and it would be a tragedy,” he said.