Police Officers to Reimburse City for Commute Miles
by Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Approximately 55 Clearwater Police Officers will have to start paying the city for commuting mileage they put on take-home police cruisers courtesy of a policy decision made by the City Council last week.
The cost of the city's take-home vehicles came under scrutiny last year by the Council-appointed Budget Task Force, who recommended that the vehicles not be taken beyond the borders of Pinellas County.
Following the Budget Task Force report, City Auditor Robin Gomez was charged with evaluating the city's take-home vehicle policies; he presented his recommendations to the City Council during their worksession last Tuesday.
Gomez said that the Police Department had the 150 of the city's 185 take-home vehicles, those 150 representing 66-percent of the entire police fleet. Officers residing in Pasco and Hillsborough Counties were responsible for 44 take-home police vehicles. Gomez said that cost to the city of commute miles on take-home police vehicles was $340,000 annually, assuming operating expenses of 71-cents per mile.
Gomez recommended that officers taking police vehicles home beyond the borders of Pinellas County be charged 50-cents per mile for the distance between their homes and the Countryside Police Substation, estimating that the city would recover $172,000 annually.
"Robin is looking at this issue through the eyes of an auditor, and I'm looking at this issue from a police chief's perspective because it has a direct impact on our ability to conduct police operations," Police Chief Sid Klein told the Council following Gomez' presentation.
Klein defended his department's use of take-home vehicles, claiming that officers with permanently-assigned cruisers are able to respond more quickly to emergency call-ins, and are more efficient on a daily basis because they save the approximately one hour per day that would be necessary to setup and take down their personal equipment in a shared vehicle.
Klein also claimed that the use of take-home vehicles was an effective officer recruitment and retention tool. "The competition for hiring new officers at police agencies across the country is vicious, and I mean vicious. We are competing with agencies across the country that provide lucrative signing bonuses just to join the department in addition to providing those officers with take-home vehicles with very little restriction on where those officers can live," he said.
The issues having been exposed during Tuesday's worksession, the take-home vehicle decision fell into the laps of the City Council at their public meeting on February 7.
Following about 45-minutes of discussion, Vice Mayor John Doran proposed that officers with take-home vehicles reimburse the city 29-cents per mile for commuting mileage exceeding 15 miles each way from their homes to the downtown police headquarters; it was approved unanimously.
The decision seemed to satisfy all parties present at the meeting, including Officer Jonathan Walser, president of the Clearwater Chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, who accepted both the 15-mile radius and 29-cents per mile reimbursement rate.
But the Council's decision did not satisfy Charles Rutz, who as a member of last year's Budget Task Force originally exposed the take-home vehicle issue. Rutz, a former fleet manager for a division of Union Carbide, called the outcome "abysmal." "Here's a $35,000 vehicle for a job perk," he said.
Rutz opined that Clearwater's police fleet could be reduced by 45 vehicles via the elimination of take-home vehicles, saving the city about $350,000 annually in vehicle acquisition, insurance and maintenance costs.
City Auditor Robin Gomez estimated that the Council's decision to seek reimbursement from officers for commute mileage would amount to about $81,000 annually.
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