A deep backlog of Suffolk County vehicles needing repairs -- led by aging police cars -- has prompted lawmakers to restore funding for mechanics lost to recent layoffs.

The County Legislature last week, amid a series of amendments to the 2014 budget, added $135,638 in salaries and benefits so the Public Works Department can hire three auto mechanics.

The jobs were among nearly 300 cut in mid-2012, when officials were projecting a three-year shortfall of more than $500 million.

About 1,000 Suffolk workers have departed either through layoffs or retirement since County Executive Steve Bellone took office in January 2012. While lawmakers have generally supported his payroll trimming efforts, they said the state of the county's vehicle fleet necessitated an exception.

"So many of our automobiles have high mileage -- big numbers like 200,000 -- and they're being sent out to shops where there's a backlog of literally weeks on end until we get them back," said Presiding Officer Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon). "It's more affordable to have these mechanics on duty."

Public Works is down 11 of its 39 auto mechanics and has said the fleet it maintains is getting older as staffing is at "historical lows." Bellone put $5 million in next year's capital budget for new police cars, but the department has determined it would need $9 million to replace all patrol cars when they reach 130,000 miles, and all other police vehicles at 150,000 miles, in order to keep the public safety fleet at current levels.

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Monday the administration couldn't yet commit to hiring the mechanics, even if the funding is in the budget, since it's still reviewing whether public works is getting the most from current staff.

"Adding staff would be a last resort if the department can demonstrate that operations are being run with maximum efficiency," Schneider said.

But Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who chairs the public safety committee, said police and probation vehicles are sitting at outside shops for months for routine work county staff can't get to.

In 2012, public works spent $1.2 million on repairs by outside vendors, but the department estimates that the total will rise to $1.8 million this year.

"It's something that's drastically needed," Browning said of the three mechanic hires.

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