Lexington's budget crunch

Mayor postpones plan to alter Lexington police home-fleet program

Gray must negotiate before changing take-home privileges

jkegley@herald-leader.comNovember 15, 2011 

In the wake of criticism from Lexington's police union, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray announced Monday that the city would postpone its plan to alter the police department's home-fleet program, which allows off-duty officers to use their cruisers for recreational purposes.

The proposed change, which would have limited where and for what purpose off-duty officers could have driven city-owned vehicles, was revealed to officers Friday via email from Police Chief Ronnie Bastin.

On Monday, the city agreed to postpone the changes after members of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4 said the city had not taken the proper steps to alter the policy, which is governed by the active collective bargaining contract.

Gray said members of his staff met with union officials Monday. Union members indicated they were willing to address the costs associated with the home-fleet program during collective bargaining negotiations, which are under way.

"Based upon the police union's willingness to address the potential savings associated with modifying the home-fleet plan, I am delaying the start of our policy change to allow for a solution that helps save money and also avoids potential negative impacts on public safety," Gray said at a news conference Monday.

Union President Mike Sweeney said officers were "pleased that the mayor has agreed to leave this where it should have been in the first place, which is at the collective bargaining table."

The old collective bargaining contract has expired; however, officers operate under the old contract until a new one is ratified.

Gray has said he plans to save $5.6 million in collective bargaining contracts to shore up an estimated $27 million revenue shortfall. Lexington firefighters already have ratified a contract in which they took concessions including a wage freeze and health care reductions. That contract will save the city $2.3 million over three years.

The delay in ratifying a new contract with police and seeing the savings associated with it is what caused the city to try to change the policy, according to Bastin's email message.

Finance Commissioner Jane Driskell said the city could have potentially saved $1 million by curbing off-duty use of vehicles, but she said that was based on preliminary numbers and "assumptions about personal use" of the vehicles.

Savings would come from gas and insurance payments and maintenance. It wasn't immediately clear how much the city pays.

Under the proposed policy change, cruisers would be used only to drive to and from work and for "division-sanctioned events and purposes," the email said.

Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason said that under the new program, officers would have been able to take their cruisers to and from work, and there would have been some allowance for them to drive their cars to a second job, although the officers would have had to pay some reimbursement fees.

Currently, there are no restrictions for off-duty use within Fayette County, although officers who live out of the county can only take their cars to and from work. Out-of-county residents also have to pay at least 25 cents a mile in reimbursement to the city.

The purpose of the home-fleet program, which Sweeney said was implemented in the 1970s, is to increase visibility of officers and to have more officers available. Officers must be armed, and they must turn on their radios and respond to emergencies.

According to records obtained by the Herald-Leader, off-duty officers respond to about 350 calls a month. In 2010, there were 4,418 calls answered by off-duty officers. There have been more than 3,300 off-duty responses this year.

The collective bargaining contract says the city can make changes to the program only with the union's consent. If the city wishes to make changes to the home-fleet program, "it agrees to meet with representatives of the Lodge and negotiate the changes prior to implementation," the contract says.

However, the home-fleet program had not come up during contract negotiations.

Earlier Monday, Sweeney said city officials had not attempted to negotiate any changes and "are in violation by not negotiating with us. That's something they have to go to the table with."

The existing contract guarantees that officers can use their cars while off-duty, as long as they are prepared to respond to emergencies.

"We understand the city's plight financially, but this is a question of legality," Sweeney said.

With the home-fleet proposal tabled, city officials said they would have to look at other ways to save money if a collective bargaining agreement can't be reached soon.

Gray said he was "asking the police union to help us in this important process."

"I can't emphasize enough that our budget situation continues to worsen, and more reductions in the upcoming months are likely," he said.

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