ST. PETERSBURG — As Mayor Bill Foster works to close a $4 million budget gap this year and find money for employee raises next year, a generous police perk the mayor approved after taking office is coming under scrutiny.
Nearly 80 percent of the city's police officers are assigned a take-home car that they can drive to and from work and gas up for free at city pumps — courtesy of taxpayers.
Many officers live outside Pinellas County, some as far away as Pasco and Hernando. Yet, the city doesn't track the cost of this perk, which is more generous than some other large Tampa Bay area agencies.
When asked how much the practice cost, city officials could cite only the overall $2.5 million fuel cost expected for fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30. Some City Council members want a more detailed accounting.
"I don't begrudge an officer for taking a car home," said council Chairman Karl Nurse. "We ought to be able to figure out what it costs us. It's just math."
Leslie Curran agreed.
She wants the cost before the council approves a new budget in September, stressing that in these times nothing is sacred.
"Everything is up for review," she said. "This should be one of the things we review."
Of the 448 police officers who are assigned take-home vehicles, 188 live in St. Petersburg. Another 133 live outside city limits in Pinellas County; 127 travel to other counties.
Police Chief Chuck Harmon said it would be impossible to provide a cost of the program, adding: "There is just not any way to track it."
Whatever the cost of the fuel, the program benefits taxpayers, Harmon said.
Officers spend an additional 40 minutes on the street because they don't have to come into the station at the start and end of their shift, he said.
With gas prices rising in recent years, the department's fuel budget has jumped from $1.6 million in fiscal year 2010 to $2.2 million in fiscal 2012.
While Tampa employs a practice similar to St. Petersburg's, two other local agencies make officers help pay for the gas they use to drive home.
Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies who live outside their coverage county can drive department cars as far as the county line. After that they must pay mileage to and from their homes. Pinellas deducts that cost from deputies' paychecks.
In St. Petersburg, the perk is likely to come up again as council members scrutinize budget requests for the next year. Most city employees have not had pay increases in four years, but Foster has said that is one of his biggest priorities this year.
To help make that possible, Foster has ordered all departments to make additional 1 percent cuts and to eliminate expenses that don't impact the delivery of services.
After winning the support of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association during the 2009 mayoral campaign, Foster expanded the take-home policy weeks after taking office in 2010.
Before, officers had to live within the county to take home cars.
Foster said he changed the policy to allow officers to take cars up to 40 miles away to make it more fair.
Officers who lived in South Tampa and Palmetto couldn't participate because they lived outside Pinellas, Foster said. Yet, others who lived farther away in North Pinellas could, he added.
"I think it's more equitable to do it on a mileage radius," he said. "We're going to keep the program. I don't want to expand it any further."
The policy, the mayor said, also has helped land better police recruits and prevent more experienced officers from going to other cities with the benefit.
"Once we implemented the new policy, officers started staying," said Detective Mark Marland, head of the police union. "It's a recruitment tool. We've dumped a ton of money on training for officers to go right across the bay."
He pointed to safety as another benefit.
Officers can respond to major emergencies without going to the station to get a car and to load all their equipment, he said.
"We're emergency responders," Marland said. "We can respond to scenes and be put in place."
Foster stressed that winning union support in 2009 did not push him to change the policy.
"That doesn't play into that at all," he said. "It's a benefit. I can't pay them any more, but I can treat all employees with respect."
Mark Puente can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.