published Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

Take-home cars revived

We applaud the five City Council members who owned up this week to the mistake the Council made two weeks ago in negating police officers' take-home car allowances. In an attempt to restore the policy, the council's narrow majority voted to pursue ways to finance a reinstatement of the old policy, but only for officers who reside in the city.

The council's Jan. 4 decision to stop the free take-home car privilege, and to impose a mileage fee for take-home cars -- 20 cents a mile for officers who reside in the city, and 30 cents for those outside -- was intended to help trim the budget in lieu of cutting other vital services.

Still, it left a bitter taste for officers who rightly believe that the policy was started years ago, and then continued, in lieu of a pay increase. Advocates of continuing the policy also believe, with good reason, that its benefit in police visibility and availability for emergencies well outweighs the purely fiscal costs of allowing take-home privileges for police cruisers.

Indeed, many would also argue that the better care, lower maintenance costs and longer life of cars assigned for take-home use exceeds, or at least negates, the higher fuel expense for off-duty, take-home mileage.

The policy now proposed would restore the free, take-home car policy for officers who reside inside the city limits. It would maintain the new 30-cents-a-mile charge for officers who live outside the city and drive their cruisers to homes miles away from the city's border.

One option being considered would charge the latter group of officers for the mileage just from the city limits to their homes. That would be a fair, even generous, compromise on the city's part.

For the city taxpayers who are footing the bill, the primary value of letting off-duty police officers take their police cruisers home is enhanced crime deterrence and emergency response due to the increased visibility of police cars and the potential for officers to immediately respond to emergency situations. When police officers drive to homes outside of the city, however, they deprive Chattanooga taxpayers of their full share of those benefits.

The cumulative effect of that is significant. More than 60 percent of the city's 428-member police force lives outside Chattanooga's city limits. Many, including police Chief Bobby Dodd, reside in Soddy-Daisy. Some officers live still farther away, near Hamilton County's northern border with Rhea County, which lies nearly 20 miles outside the city limits. At $3 or more a gallon for a gas-slurping police cruiser, the mileage-and-maintenance costs for such commutes negate the public justification for take-home cars. Moreover, police officers who do not live in the city do not even pay into the city tax coffers that support their jobs and salaries.

It would not be rational now to require fire and police department members to reside in the city. The pool of qualified potential recruits would be too narrow to make that a viable policy. But city officials would do well to consider incentives to entice police office officers, fire department personnel and members of other emergency response services to live inside the city -- and even to live in particular sections of the city.

Any well-considered incentive policy that encourages essential personnel to live in the city which pays their salary would be a step toward greater loyalty and improved services. That would benefit both the people who pay city taxes, and the employees who provide their crucial services.

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jpo3136 said...

We need to ensure that a private property holding company does not become the owner of these patrol cars.

This scandal seems to be following the same pattern that other outsourcing, buyout/leaseback profiteering plans do. This would create an unlikely to ever end stream of private revenue whose main function would be to conceal, but be incapable of eliminating, liability.

Bartering for a percentage is likely to be a ploy to further reduce the investment costs associated with starting up such a folding company. Notice how, through McKamey Animal Shelter, we already have companies in place who are in the business of liability masking.

What's different with the Animal Shelter, and potentially the Police Patrol Car approach, is that instead of masking the liability of employees, these plans would mask the liability of constant, reoccurring, eroding costs.

We need to be on guard against letting this opportunistic and exploitative approach to business work its way into government. Look at the widespread damage similar schemes have had on local companies. Who believes that outsourcing is beneficial? We've seen it create significant financial harm. It's largest and worst feature is in masking liability.

Failing to reasonably and honestly disclose easily observable costs, failing to own up to what we own, and generally avoiding accountability is not what we expect from local government.

We need to have accountability. We need to be able to see and know what our equity is. That means observing and using and controlling and possessing all of our assets and liabilities.

Give those patrol cars back to the police. All of those vehicles, police, fire and public works, which somehow got sucked up in this scandal: send them back to the units they came from. Return to accountability in a way that prevents profiteering schemes like outsourced liability holding companies that would turn Police, Fire and Public Works logistics into a limousine service.

We need cops in patrol cars, not some rich person's taxicabs. Rescind the entire procedure which would allow and unaccountable property holding company to seize these assets, either in bulk or by degree.

Require disclosure and accountability. Reject this preparatory scheme that will promote outsourcing the government vehicles.

January 22, 2011 at 7:04 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

If I had to guess, that percentage of police cars that they want to warehouse now would probably be close to what they can store without spending additional money. This would continue to promote the practice which would lay the groundwork for a property holding company to take control of some of the cars now. Then, as this scheme gained control of revenue, in exchange for masking that amount of liability, it would obtain its working capital to build the remaining fenced in lots.

Of course, anyone in the protection industry knows, "an obstacle not overwatched . . . is not an obstacle." The fence and key card system would amount to slowing down or reducing the courteous access to those resources; it's not an actual crime prevention measure.

It'd be enough of a barrier to keep certain employees out, which would be the fence's main function if the vehicles were to later move to a for-profit property holding company.

Outsourcing services is in line with a union-busting approach, which has been a new initiative of the Republican Party this year, nationally. I suspect that this police car scheme is our local answer to that set of directives. One of the main returns would be to cultivate a year's worth of commercial and political gains to act as a show of support for that political policy; perhaps the returns on that would be additional cash or support for campaign advertising. Even if there was no such returned favor, a property holding company to mask the liability of the operation of government would be not only financially, but politically, lucrative. With actual operating costs masked, people could be told whatever about the budget.

This would allow politicians to claim, as they did with this last one, that the budget was "balanced" when it in practice did not provide for basic services, like the transportation of police.

Give the patrol cars back to the police. Squash this property holding company buyout/leaseback scheme before it gains any real traction.

And remember this when we elect mayors.

January 22, 2011 at 7:27 a.m.
jpo3136 said...

If you think the gasoline bill to the Rhea County line's commute is big, wait until you see the milking which is about to take place if this property holding company and outsourcing scheme is not quashed. This will cost a fortune, get our people treated poorly at all ends, and reduce our ability to put a stop to those corrupt practices once they start.

We need to find out if and how many of our government accountants are certified as a "Tennessee Certified Municipal Finance Officer" or better. This was an education requirement for accountants that went into law back in 2007. There are some exceptions, for CPAs and other people who might already have similar or higher certifications from the state.

Between UT and state, our financial people are supposed to be educated on accurate budgeting and reporting. It's clear that failures in those areas have been part of the problem here.

Insist upon accurate financial reporting from government. Insist upon knowing and being able to control and possess key items like police cars. Understand that we get the bill because we're in control. Keep it that way.

January 22, 2011 at 7:47 a.m.
fairmon said...

It may be time for an independent financial audit by a major recognized national firm with a publicly issued report similar to those now required by the SEC of any publicly owned business. Could our local government stand this light of day on their financial behavior and the real liability?

The economics of the police car savings don't add up. Outsourcing as described will not save tax payers money. It is not as if our police and firemen are over paid. In fact they are under staffed and should be given more support than they receive. Their value is much greater than many council supported activities. I still get a stomach pain that is not due to gas every time I think about the ECA budget and others like it that cater to special interest and appear to be untouchable.

January 22, 2011 at 8:15 a.m.
AndrewLohr said...

Better late than never, council. jpo, who's outsourcing what?

January 22, 2011 at 6:35 p.m.
coverbooks said...

On 12/24/10, Mayor Ron announced his order disallowing take home cars for CPD. Their choice was to either park in a designated lot in the city or pay/mile to take their cars home. How many of us pay attention to gov’t. issues on Christmas Eve? Yet Sly Ron chose that particular time to make his decision "public". 1.Take home cars mean far better safety for the rest of us,apparently not a mayoral concern. When cop cars are on the road, whether the cop is officially on duty or commuting to/from work, they are a visual deterrent to crime. While commuting, cops intervene in crimes & help others in need, even for other city workers who also commute from the cty. In effect, our short-sighted mayor has taken away “free” cop time. Take home cars are a bargain Ron! 2.Cop cars have snow tires, cops personal cars don't. Like us, many cops will not be able to get to work when we get another snow storm further decreasing our safety. 3.The parked cop cars are tactically great for the bad guys because all that ammo and equipment is there for the taking in one spot! Is it realistic to assume that some barbed wire & a security guard’s going to keep motivated drug dealers & seasoned thieves out? I don’t envy the security guard that job! 4. Why is it that the city is never able to fill its work force of cops? Imagine being the head of a company. You hire employees to do the work so your company can run properly. Then, you turn your back & walk out the door never sitting down with your employees to discuss job issues or to say thanks for the good work. Instead you announce that from now on there will be no OT pay, even though OT is necessary for the job. Then on Christmas Eve, at the height of the season of giving and goodwill, you announce that you’re reducing the time they can use their tools to do the job, (take home cars) & of course the contents of the cars during those times. Then you pay them about $9,000 less than the state average for cops. On top of that, you pay new recruits only slightly below what the average experienced cop earns in a divisive move which can further erode the last shred of morale. How much more of a beating would your morale and wallet take before you looked for a job elsewhere? Lack of police retention costs the city big bucks having to continually run academies and still not being able to fill the ranks. We are losing our skilled officers because our mayor insists on treating them like pond scum. Let's find the money to treat our CPD with more respect for the job they do from other parts of the budget. Our PD is working against incredible odds in terms of a mayor who is more their enemy than the thugs on the street. A city can exist without museums & fancy statues but it cannot exist without a good police force. The mayor’s got his priorities ‘bass-ackwards’. It is just a matter of time before this ship sinks & it will be the mayor’s doing.

January 24, 2011 at 9:38 p.m.
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