Take-home cruisers escape austere era
By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
PINELLAS PARK -- The City Council has agreed to spend more than $1-million for police cars that officers can take home with them.
The city will lease-purchase 24 cars -- eight a year for the next three years. Those cruisers will be in addition to worn-out or wrecked cars that must be replaced.
The $1.1-million contract is for five years. The first buy of eight cars comes at a time when the city is facing financial difficulties.
Late last year, council members froze hiring and construction after what one member called a "doom and gloom" prediction for the city's economy. The freeze was calculated to stave off a projected shortfall of about $1.1-million in the 2003-04 budget year caused by lower-than-expected revenues and increasing costs.
But council members have ignored the freeze to:
-- spend about $3.3-million to build a faux train station to house the chamber of commerce, art and historical societies, and city offices
-- hire five people, four of them in the Police Department
-- "overhire" four police officers who were not listed in the budget nor requested during last year's budget process.
Still frozen are about 90 projects totaling about $19.4-million of Pinellas Park's $33.6-million capital budget. The council ordered staffers to cut about 10 percent, $3.4-million, from the budget before any projects could go forward. That report is expected next week.
Despite the freeze, council members did not blink when they approved the police car purchase at last week's meeting.
Allowing officers to take their cars home is common among police departments, but it's fairly new to Pinellas Park. The council agreed to experiment with the idea to improve department morale and reduce turnover.
The program is limited to officers who live in Pinellas Park.
But allowing officers to take home cars has a couple of down sides. One is the added expense for cars that would be unnecessary if all officers continued to use the fleet as now.
Fleet cars are generally used 24 hours a day, said Ron Miller, assistant finance administrator and director of purchasing. As officers come on shift, they simply take one of the fleet, so there's little down time unless an officer is ill or the car needs repair.
Take-home cars will sit in an officer's driveway most of the day unless he or she is patrolling, Miller said.
"That car is essentially out of service for the next shift," he said.
That, and the need to maintain the fleet, means the number of city police cars will probably increase.
Then there are the accoutrements for each car -- the blue and red light bars on top and so forth. Generally, when Pinellas Park replaces a police car, the light bar and other add-ons are merely moved to the new car.
Buying new light bars and other such items almost doubles the cost of a new car: The car itself runs about $20,500, and the police upgrades add about $19,000. Those costs and an expected 5 percent price increase over the next three years are included in the $1.1-million for the lease-purchase contract.
What is not included is the cost of putting officers' names on the cars. Miller said the city has no plans to do that, although he heard "in passing" that it might happen.
Pinellas Park spokesman Tim Caddell said police officials told him the cost of putting names on cars would be minimal, about "5 bucks apiece. They just print out vinyl letters and stick them on."
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