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St. Petersburg police cars bump against fuel-efficient goal

ST. PETERSBURG —It had all the trappings of an ugly political spat: a broken environmental promise, an unorthodox purchase arrangement, quarreling city officials.

In the end, city leaders worked out a compromise on the purchase of nine gas-guzzling police cars. The cars will likely be purchased, but police Chief Chuck Harmon pledged to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles in the future.

The saga began in May, when Mayor Rick Baker announced his latest green policy with much fanfare: The city would buy the most energy-efficient cars available, effective immediately.

City Council member Karl Nurse, an ardent environmentalist, became upset last week when he discovered that the Police Department wanted to spend $200,000 on nine Ford Crown Victorias, a standard police vehicle but not the greenest car around. "It was a total 180 (degrees) from the mayor's executive order," he said.

The staff suggested the council approve the purchase as part of the consent agenda, a list of routine items voted on collectively without public discussion. Nurse balked and asked that the council debate the issue. He also asked the city to delay the purchase so it could shop for energy-efficient vehicles.

But the city already had told Duval Motor Co. in Jacksonville that it intended to buy the cars, even though the council isn't set to vote on the purchase until today. The manufacturer had begun building the vehicles, which are adapted for law enforcement use.

"This is not our normal process," acknowledged Louis Moore, the city's purchasing director.

City officials said the mayor's green plan didn't exist when Harmon requested the cars several months ago, and added that they needed to purchase the vehicles quickly so they can get 2009 models at 2008 prices.

The city contracts with the Florida Sheriff's Association to handle its police vehicle purchases and has the option of several vehicles and vendors. None of the options has fuel efficiency above 17 mpg. The deadline to purchase vehicles at 2008 prices is in September.

Harmon said the department will study purchasing more fuel-efficient vehicles in the future. He said he has been considering switching to green cars for weeks.

"It's something we ought to do if it makes sense for us to do it," he said.

Of 1,486 city vehicles, 519 belong to the Police Department. The city has 19 hybrid vehicles, including one driven by the mayor, and uses only ethanol-enhanced fuel.

Harmon drives a 2008 Chevrolet Impala, which gets about 16 mpg.

Baker is on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

Other council members seem less concerned than Nurse about the vehicle debate.

"We are all about fuel efficiency," said council Chairman Jamie Bennett. "But if (Harmon) has to purchase cars because the old ones are falling apart … we have to go with the chief and keep pushing for the alternatives as they come along."

Nurse said other city departments should consider themselves warned.

"This is the line in the sand," he said. "These will be the last Crown Victorias anyone will be buying."

Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or csilva@sptimes.com.

St. Petersburg police cars bump against fuel-efficient goal 08/06/08 [Last modified: Friday, August 8, 2008 8:28pm]
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