TAMPA — With gas prices reaching record highs, the Tampa Police Department says it will have to spend $800,000 more than originally budgeted this year to cover rising fuel costs.
At the same time, the department offers one of the area's most generous take-home car policies, with taxpayers covering the gas costs of many city-issued cars used for commutes far outside city limits.
City leaders say they have no plans to change that.
"We look at that take-home car policy as … part of their benefits package," said police Chief Steve Hogue.
The department has 985 take-home vehicles assigned to officers and a few staff members.
Only 261 of those belong to employees living in the city of Tampa. Of the rest, more than 230 go home with officers who live in Pasco County, while 14 are assigned to employees who live in Polk County.
That's not the case in other jurisdictions.
St. Petersburg police officers assigned marked patrol cars have to park them at the Pinellas County line if they live outside the county. Ditto for Pasco County deputies.
Hillsborough and Pinellas sheriff's deputies who live outside their counties can drive department cars as far as the county line and then have to pay mileage to and from their homes.
Mayor Pam Iorio, who needs to trim $19-million from next year's budget, doesn't think the take-home car program is the place to look for savings.
"It would be very detrimental to change the policy," Iorio said.
First, since the policy is in the police contract, any changes would become part of contract negotiations next year.
Former Mayor Dick Greco reinstituted the take-home car policy in 1996, making good on a campaign promise. His predecessor, Sandy Freedman, had eliminated the benefit in 1988, saving $2.2-million by selling some of the fleet.
The decision drew strong resistance from officers, many of whom had to buy personal cars with little notice.
"That was one of the worst times with our police department," Iorio said. "Morale was terrible."
Iorio said she doesn't want to do anything to damage her relationship with the department or slow its momentum, which she said has resulted in a 42.5 percent decrease in crime in Tampa over the past five years.
But City Council member Charlie Miranda says it might be wise to reconsider the policy next year.
"I can't leave anything off the table," he said. "Things have to change if the ever-presence of declining income continues in this city."
Other council members, though, say the decision belongs to the mayor.
Even council member John Dingfelder, who two years ago rejected the mayor's proposed budget and trimmed it himself, and this year fought Iorio's plans to privatize some city services, defers to her on this issue, citing the City Charter.
"I try to abide by what our role is and what our role isn't," he said.
On Thursday, the council is scheduled to vote to authorize spending the extra $800,000 for fuel.
Greg Stout, president of the Tampa police union, says the take-home car policy is a useful recruiting tool. Plus, he said, having police vehicles parked in neighborhoods deters crime.
The policy also has some financial benefits, said police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.
Maintenance costs have gone down since bringing back the take-home cars, and the vehicles last for seven years instead of three. That's because the cars aren't used around the clock, she said.
The city did not have data Tuesday on the cost for the fuel used by officers driving cars home outside city limits.
Overall, the department spent about $3-million on fuel in both 2006 and 2007. Because of higher gas prices, the department expects to spend $4-million in both 2008 and 2009.
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.