1. Opinion

Editorial: Police car costs need a public accounting

St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon doesn’t keep track of how much gas officers use commuting to and from work using police department vehicles.
St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon doesn’t keep track of how much gas officers use commuting to and from work using police department vehicles.
Published Jul. 8, 2013

Imagine if St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon refused to break out the cost of overtime for his officers or how much of the personnel budget went to providing health insurance. That is essentially the posture Harmon is taking when asked how much it costs for officers to commute to and from work using police department vehicles. The department declines to keep track of how much gas is used, a dodge designed to shield the take-home car program from public accountability. Mayor Bill Foster doesn't appear interested in following up, but the City Council should demand an informed discussion on how generous this benefit should be.

Nearly 80 percent of the city's police officers have take-home cars — there are more than 450 — which can be used for commutes of up to 40 miles one way, with gas gratis. Foster, who had the support of the Suncoast Police Benevolent Association during the 2009 mayoral campaign, expanded the perk soon after taking office. Before that, take-home cars could be used only within Pinellas County.

The more generous take-home policy, plus higher fuel prices, has made a dent in the city's tight budget at a time when city staff have been denied raises and city departments are suffering deep cuts. Overall, the cost for fuel is expected to hit $2.5 million for fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30. In fiscal year 2010, the department's fuel budget was $1.6 million.

It may not make sense to end the take-home benefit that officers rely upon, but it needs to be more transparent and possibly more limited. There are crime-control benefits to having a police car parked in a residential neighborhood, and it is the kind of perk that keeps officers from jumping to other agencies. But Pinellas and Hillsborough counties impose sensible limits. Sheriff's deputies must pay for mileage beyond the county lines as an incentive to live within the agency's jurisdiction.

St. Petersburg is in the absurd position of providing a more generous benefit to officers who choose to live well outside the city, where the crime deterrent effect is not enjoyed by the city's taxpayers. And Foster should keep in mind those officers can't vote in city elections.

An analysis by the Tampa Bay Times found that taxpayers are paying $685,000 in fuel costs annually for 110 officers who live outside Pinellas County, including in Pasco and Hernando counties, and $497,000 for 94 officers who live in Pinellas but outside the city. It isn't clear how much of the fuel is used for their commutes versus on-the-job patrols.

City Council member Leslie Curran and council chairman Karl Nurse say they want the department to determine the cost of the program. That is the only way to evaluate it as a city priority during coming budget talks. Foster and Harmon should welcome the public discussion.