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St. Petersburg's fuel tab is high for commuting officers

St. Petersburg police Officer Daniel Godsall fills his take-home car at the city’s fleet pumps last month. The chief defends the expense as necessary to retain officers.

LARA CERRI | Times

St. Petersburg police Officer Daniel Godsall fills his take-home car at the city’s fleet pumps last month. The chief defends the expense as necessary to retain officers.

ST. PETERSBURG — While most city workers haven't had raises in four years, a police perk expanded by Mayor Bill Foster in 2010 saves police officers bundles of cash each year.

But it costs taxpayers.

Since January 2012, nearly one-third of the department's fuel budget has been gobbled up by officers who live outside the city and drive their patrol cars home, some to as far away as Pasco and Hernando counties, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of city records.

The city doesn't track the cost of this perk.

"It's really an issue of being more work for us to do," police Chief Chuck Harmon said.

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 — courtesy of taxpayers.

Using city records, the Times calculated the fuel costs for marked cruisers based on usage and the average price of $3.47 per gallon paid in 2012 and $3.40 per gallon this year. The records show:

• Taxpayers spent $685,000 on fuel for 110 officers commuting outside Pinellas County. A patrol officer living in Riverview had the highest fuel tab: $12,979. The fuel costs include miles driven when officers were on duty. The city does not track the miles that officers drive from their homes.

• Taxpayers paid $497,000 on fuel for 94 officers who commute to other parts of Pinellas County. For 152 officers living in St. Petersburg, taxpayers spent $635,000.

• As a comparison, 15 of the 30 cruisers with biggest fuel bills are fleet vehicles used by newer officers not eligible for take-home cars. The fleet car with the highest fuel tab: $13,054.

Meanwhile, the costs for the program are likely higher. With more than 450 take-home cars, the department didn't provide fuel usage for undercover and surveillance vehicles since it would identify where officers live.

When asked how much the practice cost in May, city officials only cited the overall $2.5 million fuel cost expected for fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30.

Some City Council members want more details.

The paper's analysis shows the need to have an exact cost of the program since it has an "enormous impact" on the budget, Leslie Curran said.

"In times of tight budgets, there has to be a way to determine costs to take cars outside the city," she said.

Council Chairman Karl Nurse supports the program, but said the department should determine the cost.

"We know where officers live," he said. "It's just math. If it's a perk you're comfortable with, you shouldn't pretend you can't figure out the cost."

St. Petersburg's policy is similar to the city of Tampa's.

But Pinellas and Hillsborough sheriff's deputies who live outside their 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.

Mayor Bill Foster expanded the program in 2010 so officers could commute up to 40 miles instead of staying in the county.

The police union is one of the mayor's biggest donors and provides foot soldiers for his re-election campaign.

Harmon defended the take-home program.

He believes the cars deter crime when parked in neighborhoods, regardless of location.

It's also essential for stopping highly trained officers from going to work in other cities with the perk, he added.

"This is a benefit for the officers," Harmon said. "It's an industry standard."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow on Twitter @ markpuente.

St. Petersburg's fuel tab is high for commuting officers 07/06/13 [Last modified: Saturday, July 6, 2013 8:42pm]
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