Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield's intimation Tuesday that City Council members might have to choose between funding the police department's career incentive ladder or fully reinstating the department's take-home car policy in next year's budget really offers no choice at all. The $1.2 million involved will cover the cost of only one program. Incentives are the better choice.
That pick might not sit so well with some members of the department. Many are still smarting from last year's decision that wisely restricted free take-home cars to officers who reside within city limits. Those who choose to live outside city limits can take their work vehicles home, but they must pay a monthly fee to do so. That's a fair policy, one that provides an incentive for officers to live in the city that provides their livelihood.
Many officers argue that their presence in a marked vehicle while off-duty is a crime deterrent in their neighborhood and on the road. That may be so, but an officer who lives in, say, Soddy Daisy or in an unincorporated area of the county, is providing those services to individuals who do not pay Chattanooga taxes. That's unfair to the city's ratepayers.
City residents should not subsidize the cost of gasoline, maintenance and depreciation of a vehicle used for purposes other than providing services within the city. Any arguments to the country are simply self-serving. Indeed, the city's adoption of the current policy on take-home cars after considerable debate last year remains equitable and economically sound.
According to the mayor, it would cost the city about $1 million annually to again provide take-home cars for all officers. That money is better spent on the career ladder initiative, a proven program that financially rewards officers who obtain more training and receive promotions. Police Chief Bobby Dodd obviously agrees. "The cars are not my argument this year," he said at Tuesday's meeting. "My argument is raises and benefits this year."
The chief is right. Programs that improve pay and benefits -- as the incentive ladder will do -- are a boon to officers and the department as a whole. Police officials here have said for years that low pay and benefits make it difficult to attract and retain qualified, dedicated officers. Funding the career ladder program this year won't immediately erase that problem, but it is a commitment that underscores the city's desire to hire, train and maintain a top-flight police department.
No one requires police officers to live in the city, but there are incentives available for those who choose to do so. The current take-home car policy is one. A program that offers up to $20,000 to officers who move into the city is another.
Under its terms, officers moving into the city are eligible for a $10,000 loan forgivable over five years. Officers who move into neighborhoods being revitalized by the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise -- Orchard Knob, Highland Park, Bushtown, Glenwood -- can get $20,000 on the same terms. The housing program, funded by a $250,000 in city money, benefits officers and their families. It also is a boon to rebounding communities in the heart of the city where an officer in residence can provide a welcome sense of security.
Incentives for police officers that promise better pay and benefits for all rather than a take-home car policy that arguably benefits a few at the expense of many are the better funding choice in Chattanooga's upcoming budget. The question -- "career ladder or cars"? -- may be posed directly or indirectly to members of the City Council during budget deliberations, but there's really no choice to be made.
Incentives that reward present officers, especially those who reside within city limits, and that help build a foundation for a well-trained and educated Chattanooga police force now and in the future should win every time.