Mayor Jim Gray announced Friday that he would temporarily allow police officers to drive cruisers for personal use at no cost.
The move comes after a week of back-and-forth between the city and the police union over the use of police vehicles. Gray made the change via executive order.
Officials with the police union said Friday they don't think that Gray had the authority to make the change to the police contract that was negotiated more than two years ago.
"This has much broader implications than just the police," said Det. Jason Rothermund, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4. "The city negotiates with three different bargaining units — police, fire and corrections."
However, Janet Graham, the city law commissioner, said that the executive order "is legally appropriate, and officers now have the option to drive their police vehicles while off duty."
At a news conference Friday at city hall, Gray said he was reinstating police officers' unlimited use of police cars in the name of public safety.
"I am not going to let the cost of a tank of gas get in the way of public safety," Gray said.
He said that the arrangement will remain in effect until the city can verify that a recent uptick in murders and non-fatal shootings had subsided.
Gray did not give details Friday on how the city would make that determination. How much the change will cost the city was also not known. Gray said that figure would depend on how many officers opt to use cruisers for personal use.
The mayor and city police Chief Ronnie Bastin "are encouraging officers to utilize this personal-use policy beginning today," mayoral spokeswoman Susan Straub said Friday.
Gray also criticized the Fraternal Order of Police Bluegrass Lodge No. 4, which suspended its vote Wednesday on a proposal that would allow police officers to use their cruisers for a $50 monthly fee. The union said the vote was suspended because of comments made by Gray's staff during an Urban County Council meeting on Tuesday.
"The public doesn't appreciate the stand the police union has taken especially now, when violence has intensified," Gray said. "I'm not going to play games with public safety. I'm getting the cruisers on the streets."
Rothermund said it was Gray's administration that was trying to play politics with public safety.
"It is unfortunate that the mayor's office continues the cycle of the blame game," Rothermund said. "The Fraternal Order of Police has always been more about the community, and the officers it represents, than politics."
Gray's use of an executive order to make a change — even one that benefits the police — is questionable, he said. "Both the city and the FOP must agree to the terms of any change in benefits covered under the contract. Such benefits are not subject to 'executive orders,' which is why this item was being negotiated over the last six months. The mayor does not possess the authority to unilaterally alter the contract," said Rothermund.
Rothermund said that the FOP hasn't seen the executive order yet and couldn't comment on what the FOP's next steps were.
"The FOP has yet to be presented with any documentation concerning the terms of this order but are more than willing to consider any proposed changes to the contract in the interest of public safety," he said.
The city has been negotiating with the union for more than six months to allow police officers to use their city-owned vehicles for a $50 monthly fee. Currently, police officers can drive city-owned cars only to and from work. They may also use their car for a second job if they pay a $50 fee.
As part of the city's collective bargaining agreement with the police union in 2012, the police agreed to limit the personal use of vehicles as a way to generate savings during lean budget times. Prior to 2012, police officers had unlimited use of police vehicles at no cost.
During Tuesday's Public Safety Committee meeting, Jamie Emmons, Gray's chief of staff, told the council that the limitations on personal use was agreed to by the union during contract negotiations.
Rothermund and the FOP said they felt that the city was trying to blame the FOP for the lack of police cars on the street.
Limiting personal use to only police officers who have second jobs was estimated to save more than $800,000. But the city found that it had saved only a little more than $280,000 during 2013. The city agreed to look at the benefit and proposed the $50 monthly fee as a way to recoup at least some of the cost for gas.
"Police officers have repeatedly said the personal-use policy enhances public safety," Gray said Friday. "In a time when violence is on everyone's mind, union officials will need to explain to the public why they would delay a vote to reinstitute the policy in a responsible way."
But Rothermund said Friday that the vote was only suspended. The FOP was eventually going to vote on the proposal. The FOP made no statements about the policy until Gray's administration made statements that the union says are half-truths.
"We aren't the ones playing politics," Rothermund said. "We aren't running for re-election."
Gray faces former Lexington police Chief Anthany Beatty in the November general election. Beatty has criticized Gray for parking police vehicles while the city has generated surpluses over the past two years.
Gray's staff has argued that crime dropped 7.8 percent in 2013.
Rothermund said that more police vehicles on Lexington streets will help deter crime. Moreover, off-duty police officers often respond to crimes. Police officers who use vehicles for personal errands must have their radios on and have a weapon. If an off-duty police officer in a cruiser witnesses a crime or sees a citizen in need, the officer must stop. Off-duty officers in police vehicles must also respond to any priority one crimes, or crimes when a life is in danger.
Beth Musgrave: (859)231-3205. Twitter: @HLCityhall