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For the last 45 years, mechanics working on Lincoln police cruisers have found a way to keep the growing fleet running in an aging downtown garage.

Squad cars and SUVs have been tucked into almost every corner and even occupy the original marble showroom floor of the 1930s International Harvester Truck Sales and Service Station police have made their own at Seventh and J streets.

But paint's peeling on the trusses. The roof's leaked for years. There's termite damage. And the back dock is collapsing.

"We've been making do for a long time," fleet superintendent Pat Wenzl said.

Estimated roof repairs alone have come in at $600,000, but Wenzl and Police Chief Jeff Bliemeister say city money is better spent on a new garage.

This garage not only services police cruisers, but it also maintains all 610 of the city's light-duty vehicles.

Police cruisers alone log 2.6 million miles annually, and other city agency vehicles put on another 2 million combined.

In total, the garage mechanics there perform 7,500 work orders, often for new tires and brakes, each year.

Wenzl and the department have been planning to replace the 24,000-square-foot building since 2005, and now the estimated $5 million project is in motion.

The police department has already purchased a 13,000-square-foot warehouse at 100 Oak Creek Drive with plans for an 18,000-square-foot addition.

"This is no new taxpayer money," Bliemeister said. "It is all based on the outstanding leadership and passion that (Wenzl) has."

The high ceilings at the new warehouse appealed to Wenzl and his staff, who have had to position vehicle hoists just right to give them room to work in the J Street garage, he said. 

Renovations and the addition at the new garage are still being designed, and Wenzl hopes to seek bids on the project in January.

He hopes he and his staff of 15 could move into the new building in 2020, he said.

The extra 7,000 square feet of space will accommodate expected growth in the city's police vehicle fleet in the future, Wenzl and Bliemeister said.

"It's got to be viable for decades and decades to come," Wenzl said.

Keeping up with the growing city and its police fleet have been challenges at the current garage.

Parking inside and outside the garage has been an issue since Wenzl started working there in the mid-1990s, though the addition of stations in University Place and the Clinton neighborhood helped.

An additional storage garage on the south side of a maintenance shop built in the 1990s houses tactical vehicles and new squad cars ready to be outfitted for police work.

But that, too, has reached the end of its designated life span.

"At some point in time, you just have to invest in the future," Wenzl said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

Reporter

Riley Johnson reports on breaking news and public safety issues in Lincoln and southeast Nebraska.

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