This armored SWAT vehicle keeps breaking down. Here’s what Benton County is doing about it

Benton County will tap its multimillion-dollar public safety reserve to replace an obsolete armored vehicle fashioned from a 1982 Dodge.

The Dodge has a smart military exterior but is embarrassingly obsolete.

Benton County Sheriff’s Commander Jon Law told the county commission last week the old Dodge is more trouble than it’s worth.

It is hard to start and when it does, it tends to break down mid mission, forcing officers to tow it from the scene of emergencies.

“It ends up being more of a lawn ornament than a functioning piece of equipment,” Law said.

The commission authorized Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher to spend up to $400,000 in public safety sales tax revenue to buy and equip a new armored vehicle.

It will sign off on the final purchase at a later date.

Hatcher said the new vehicle will replace the older of the county’s two armored vehicles. It acquired the Dodge 15 years ago from the Department of Energy through a federal surplus program. It is on permanent loan.

Too slow, too unreliable

Hatcher confirmed it is too slow and too unreliable for the conflicts that require a response by the Tri-Cities Regional Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team.

The sheriff’s office also has a BearCat armored personnel carrier, which it acquired about 10 years ago.

The SWAT team responds to an average of 54 incidents a year.

But this year, it has already logged more than 60 missions.

Hatcher blamed rising gang conflicts for the increase.

He said the team needs two vehicles to keep officers and the public safe.

Hatcher said he’ll pursue a bullet-proof vehicle that can carry equipped officers into the heart of the action. The close-in response will help with rescues and will give a better ability to defuse conflict.

“It’s a tremendous piece of equipment,” he said.

Public safety sales tax

The county will fund the vehicle from its voter-approved public safety sales tax fund.

Benton County voters approved the 10-year, three-tenths of a percent sales tax in 2014 to beef up law enforcement and combat crime.

Under state law, the county receives 60 percent of the proceeds and the cities split the remain in 40 percent.

The cities have used their share to hire officers, replace vehicles, assign resource officers to schools and focus on internet crimes against children.

Benton County has amassed a reserve fund even after investing in the sheriff’s and prosecutor’s office, courthouse staffing and contracted with nonprofits focused on reducing crime.

As of the most recent financial statement dated July 31, the county had $17.3 million balance in its public safety sales tax fund.

The county expects an ending fund balance of $12.6 million at the end of the 2019-2020 budget.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.