There is one reason the city of Tampa pays the gas bills for police officers who drive their take-home cars to residences beyond Hillsborough County, and it has nothing to do with public safety, sound budgeting or what is fair to taxpayers. The only purpose is to mollify the police union, whose appetite for benefits, even in these tight economic times, is matched only by the union's outsized role in city politics.
Paying the gasoline bills for officers who choose to live in Pasco or Manatee counties never made sense even before gas surged past $4 a gallon. But the rise in gas prices brings the irresponsibility of this policy to the fore, as was seen again Thursday, when the city administration requested, and City Council approved, a supplemental budget request of $800,000 to cover rising fuel costs for the coming year.
Of the 985 take-home vehicles assigned to city officers and staff, barely one in four — 261 — go to employees who live in the city of Tampa. Nearly as many go to officers who live in Pasco County; dozens more go to employees living in Pinellas, Manatee and Polk. Tampa taxpayers underwrite these commutes — a benefit not granted by other area jurisdictions. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco deputies, and St. Petersburg city police, must park or pay mileage to drive their vehicles beyond their county lines.
City officials say the policy is good for morale. They point out that take-home cars have lower maintenance costs, that having a squad car in a neighborhood helps deter crime and that police agencies, anyway, pay discounted gas rates. But none of that's the issue. No one is talking about taking away the cars — just not paying officers extra for choosing to live outside the communities that give them a job, a salary, a vehicle and a gas card. Times are tight. Hillsborough's sheriff ordered his deputies this month to look for ways to cut gas consumption; the School Board froze its travel budget. Other area governments are cutting expenses, and the city of Tampa should do the same. When Tampa renegotiates its contract with the police union next year, it should bring its gas-buying privileges in line with what other local jurisdictions cover.