Council expands police car perk
By CARRIE JOHNSON, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The City Council narrowly approved a take-home police car program Thursday, despite concerns about extending the perk to officers living outside city limits.
After nearly 90 minutes of discussion, the council voted 5-3 to support the proposal, which will cost the city more than a half-million dollars a year.
"This council has steadfastly maintained that we will always find the money to ensure our police and our fire are the best trained and the best equipped," said council member Richard Kriseman, who voted in favor of the program.
The take-home car program, the most expensive in a list of recommendations made by police Chief Chuck Harmon to recruit and retain officers, has stirred controversy because it comes as the city faces a $10-million budget shortfall. The city's administration already has said that service cuts and layoffs appear inevitable.
Others benefits included in Harmon's proposal are:
Longer shifts with shorter workweeks.
Increased pay for officers with extra duties such as SWAT patrol.
Higher salaries for officers who join the force with experience at other police agencies.
Extending a deferred retirement plan for two years.
Mayor Rick Baker announced his support for Harmon's plan last week but said he would not move forward without council approval.
For a while, it looked like the eight council members might reach an impasse when a vote to postpone a decision in favor of holding a workshop ended in a 4-4 tie. But in the end, most said the proposal was a step in the right direction.
The Police Department has struggled to keep officers in recent years, raising concerns about response times and officer safety. Last year, 54 officers quit, many for other law enforcement agencies in the area.
Surrounding counties have take-home cars, but policies differ. Orlando officers get a car if they live within Orange County. In Tampa, officers must reside in Hillsborough or any county that borders it.
Officers who live in St. Petersburg receive take-home cars. Under the new proposal, a car would be assigned to all officers who live within Pinellas County. Some council members said that sent the wrong message by rewarding those who don't live in the city.
"In my opinion, a car that goes to Clearwater every night does our city no good," said council member James Bennett.
Others voiced concern about the price. The new squad cars would cost $828,000 in 2004 and $550,000 each year after that.
"How am I going to say to a person who pays taxes in the city: No, we don't have the money to keep you, but we do have the money for a benefit for somebody who lives outside the city limits?" asked council Chairman Earnest Williams, who voted against the plan.
"I do not want ever to be in a position to just throw something up against the wall and hope it sticks," he said. There's no place for the take-home cars in the budget. But members said they would find a way to make it work.
"Public safety is the No. 1 priority when you consider overall quality of life," said council member Bill Foster.
In other council news: A group of about 30 people attended the council's open forum to decry police treatment of a 13-year-old boy, his mother and her fiance.
According to the speakers, which included several members of the Uhurus, the boy was unfairly targeted by police and his mother, Tammie Harrison, was arrested when she attempted to intervene. Harrison's fiance, Kenneth Nichols, was also arrested.
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