They see the vehicles as a way to avoid dependence on foreign oil. Florida leads the South in the government purchase of hybrids.
By CRAIG PITTMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 4, 2002
TAMPA -- Besides fighting crime, some Florida sheriffs have taken on a new foe: global warming.
In places like Martin, Marion, Broward and Alachua counties, they have spent big bucks on environmentally friendly electric-gas hybrid cars for some of their deputies.
"This is the beginning of a new era," said Wyatt Earp, the Marion County sheriff's fleet manager.
The hybrid cars, made only by Toyota and Honda, use a small gas engine mated to an electric motor. They spew less pollution, which reduces the risk of increased global warming. They also save taxpayer money by consuming less gas.
And the cars appeal to their patriotism by helping reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil.
"Since 9/11, that's been more of a concern," said Wendell Chastain, who heads Alachua's automotive fleet.
Florida now leads the south in the government purchase of hybrids, with about 100 so far bought by various state and local officials, said Mark Johnson, regional fleet manager of the Southeast Toyota Distributors.
Johnson was showing off a four-door hybrid, the snub-nosed Toyota Prius, at a Florida Sheriff's Association conference in Tampa this week. His sales pitch was aided considerably by satisfied customers like Earp and Chastain who sang the car's praises to other conference attendees.
Alachua bought one of the first Priuses sold in the United States, and now the county has 10 on the road, including one that Chastain drove to Tampa from Gainesville. He got about 40 miles per gallon.
One of Alachua's hybrid cars is used for inspecting public facilities that might be susceptible to terrorist attack, so its side decals say it's the county's official Homeland Security car.
"That may be the most patriotic car in America," said Darden Rice, the Sierra Club's global warming coordinator in Florida.
Rice was one of the speakers at the Florida Sheriff's Association conference, where she touted the hybrids to a group of about 30 that included men in camouflage caps and Harley-Davidson T-shirts -- not your usual Sierra Club audience.
As the niece of Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice, she said she likes seeing hard-nosed cops interested in environmentally friendly vehicles.
"We have Republican sheriffs talking about what they're doing to reduce global warming," she said.
Rice said her uncle has expressed interest in the cars, although so far no Tampa Bay area sheriffs have purchased any.
"I think probably this is the way of the future," said Mike Snider of the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, who was examining a Prius parked outside the conference. Wayne Atkinson of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office agreed, saying his agency may buy some for use by administrators.
"They certainly show some promise," said Steve Mitchell, manager of support services for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office.
So far most agencies use the cars only for light duty such as serving subpoenas. The vehicles really aren't built for high-speed pursuits, though Earp said he was able to briefly push one to 100 mph.
"That little sucker will get out and move, no doubt about it," Earp said. "It surprises people who think they're getting into a gutless wonder."
-- Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.