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Propane-fueled deputy squad cars strikes nerve

Published: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 3:27 p.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, May 7, 2014 11:40 p.m. CDT

WOODSTOCK – The McHenry County Board authorized the sheriff’s office to convert part of its fleet to run on liquid propane, over objections that the decision should be up to the new sheriff taking office at year’s end.

The vote came after a confusing hourlong debate in which board members appeared poised to kill the idea. But in the end, board members voted, 15-7, to approve the $78,500, three-year pilot program. Undersheriff Andrew Zinke, who attended the meeting, told board members the office over the past two years has been researching alternative fuel sources that mean reduced emissions and increased cost effectiveness.

But objecting County Board members said that the decision should be left to the new sheriff. Keith Nygren is retiring, and Zinke lost his GOP primary bid to replace him to retired Des Plaines police commander Bill Prim. Prim, who could face a November challenge from independent candidate Jim Harrison, is on record opposing the idea.

“We’re asking a new administration to redirect resources to support a pilot program that [Prim] had nothing to do with,” board member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, said.

The price tag includes the purchase of 20 conversion kits at $3,800 each, and another $2,500 to train the sheriff’s office maintenance crews. But the county plans to offset that cost by applying for a state program offering a $4,000 energy refund for each converted vehicle.

AmeriGas Propane, of Gurnee, received the bid to supply the propane, and is building a filling station at its own expense for sheriff’s office vehicles. The converted vehicles will be able to run on both propane and gasoline.

“It’s not going to cost anything when it’s all said and done,” Zinke said Wednesday. “We’re doing the next sheriff a favor ... We’re giving him a gift.”

But several board members questioned how much cost savings the sheriff’s department will see, given that liquid propane is subject to price volatility. Propane supplies have a hard time adjusting to unusual demand increases, such as very cold winters.

Board member John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, questioned the impact that conversion would have on the vehicle warranties, Others, like Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, raised questions about vehicle reliability.

“If we’re going to venture into green vehicles, why are we picking the most mission-critical vehicles in our fleet to do it?” Provenzano asked.

Provenzano, citing the upcoming change in sheriff’s office leadership, proposed a motion to table contract discussion until after the new sheriff takes office in December. The motion, seconded by Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, who aired the same concern, died in a 6-16 vote. The state rebate the county hopes to collect for the converted vehicles expires this summer, according to county staff.

Prim said Tuesday afternoon that he is disappointed in the vote, but said he will deal with it when the time comes if voters in November elect him sheriff.

“I don’t believe that this is the most viable alternative fuel source out there, and this isn’t the most prudent way to go about it,” Prim said.

The McHenry County Conservation District over the past decade has been moving away from gasoline-powered vehicles. Eighty percent of the McHenry County Conservation District’s fleet of 63 vehicles has the ability to be powered by alternative fuels. Of those 50 vehicles, 18 of them are powered by liquid propane.

• • •

What it means

The McHenry County Board voted Tuesday, 15-7, to allow the Sheriff's Office to spend up to $78,500 to modify up to 20 squad cars to run on propane as well as gasoline.

Voting no were Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, Nick Provenzano, R-McHenry, Michael Walkup, R-Crystal Lake, Paula Yensen, D-Lake in the Hills, Diane Evertsen, R-Harvard, John Hammerand, R-Wonder Lake, and County Board Chairwoman Tina Hill, R-Woodstock.

Board members Mary McClellan, R-Holiday Hills, and Sandra Fay Salgado, R-McHenry, were absent.

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