Assembly approves funds for new vacuum truck

The borough is about to purchase a new vacuum truck — a piece of equipment with a tank and suction pump that can clear sewer lines and assist with work on underground utilities. The truck is essential to the operation of Wrangell’s water and sewer systems and the borough’s current model has exceeded its recommended useful lifespan by four years.

The new vehicle will likely take between six months and a year to arrive.

On Oct. 10, the assembly unanimously approved a $294,449 transfer to the Public Works Department to purchase the truck and other equipment.

The budget for 2024 already included $268,551 for a used vacuum truck, but at its Sept. 12 meeting the assembly decided that a new model would be worth the additional cost.

Combining the previous budgeted amount and recent allocation, the total funding for the vehicle is $513,000. “We’re a small town and I get it, $500,000 is a lot of money to be asking for one piece of equipment,” said Public Works Director Tom Wetor. “I’m not asking for that lightly. It’s one of our most critical pieces of equipment for working on our most critical pieces of infrastructure.”

Assembly members didn’t want to find out what would happen if the aging vehicle failed during a crisis like a sewer main break. The truck is “critical,” said Mayor Patty Gilbert. “When you need it, you’d better have it, or you’re in trouble.”

At the September meeting, Wetor made the case for spending extra on a new vehicle.

The truck can unblock sewer lines, clear duckweed from the community’s reservoirs and keep underground excavation areas clear so that staff can work around “sensitive utilities” like water mains or electrical lines, he explained. No other pieces of equipment on the island that can perform the same work and no private businesses have a vacuum truck that could be contracted out.

“I’d say we use our truck probably around 50 times a year, maybe more,” said Wetor.

The borough’s current model, which it purchased in 2018, has needed many major repairs, most recently in 2021 when a part was replaced. “The part alone cost almost as much as we bought the truck for,” said Wetor.

He suggested that buying new would cost only marginally more per year, after factoring in the maintenance needs of a used vehicle. “When you break it down as far as price, yes, we could save a little bit of money on the front end buying used,” he said. “But I’d also say that, when you factor out the amount of money that we spent in maintenance,” a new truck would be only $5,000 more annually.

Former Assembly Member Ryan Howe agreed that in this case, buying new was worth the price. “Sewer, electricity and water — civilization grinds to a halt if one of those goes away,” he said. “And when you buy used, you buy someone else’s problems.”

Once the replacement arrives, the borough will consider holding onto the old truck until it is no longer functional, then selling off its parts.

The assembly also allocated funds for a fourth Ford F550 truck for Public Works, which will be used for winter road work and other tasks. The department plans to buy the truck used for $50,000.


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