Herald-Leader Editorial

Do the math on take-home cruisers; don't let politics cloud assessment

July 11, 2014 

The most fundamental law of budgeting is that spending money on one thing means it's not available for another.

Want a new smartphone? Fine, but forget about repainting the living room.

So, Lexington police officers could be given free use of city-owned cruisers for personal errands and to work other jobs, but that would mean there's less money for other public-safety expenses.

The question is whether that's the best use of a small portion of Lexington's public safety budget.

That point hardly arose when the Urban County Council's Public Safety Committee took up this topic Tuesday, even though it was tough budget times that led to changing a long-standing benefit that allowed officers, at no extra cost, to drive their cruisers on personal errands.

In 2012, when the city and the Fraternal Order of Police were negotiating the current contract, local revenues were still suffering the fallout of the great recession. Restricting personal use of cruisers was among the cuts ultimately accepted by both sides to avoid layoffs and cuts in other benefits.

Officers are still assigned individual cruisers, which they take home, and drive to and from work.

In the two years since, the city budget has improved and it's become apparent that restricting private use of cruisers is not saving as much money as anticipated, just under $300,000 a year instead of the once-expected $800,000.

So, although the contract has another year to go, the city and the FOP have been negotiating a change in the cruiser policy to allow officers who want to make personal use of their vehicles to pay $50 a month for that benefit.

Tuesday, members of the committee — which has no official role in contract negotiations — spoke against any fee at all. They argued the added police visibility from more cruisers on the road, plus the fact that off-duty officers in their cruisers are required to respond to some urgent calls, would justify the benefit.

It would be hard to determine how much crime is prevented by the added police visibility from officers driving cruisers for personal use. For example, we'd need to know where those cars are driven, whether in high-crime areas or in neighborhoods where public safety is rarely a concern.

In an election year, during a summer when crime has been in the headlines, questions about police budgets are hard to address dispassionately.

Only councilman Ed Lane put pencil to paper, figuring $50 seemed "reasonable," amounting to 100 miles of private use a month based on a cost of 50 cents a mile.

Lane, a consistent fiscal conservative, made an excellent point that bears remembering, regardless of the emotion of the issue: "It just needs to be a fair deal for both sides."

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