Lexington police are considering changes to the city's cruiser policy that would allow officers to use city-owned vehicles for personal use for a $50 monthly fee.
But many members of the Urban County Council on Tuesday said they don't think police officers should be charged $50 to use cruisers to run personal errands.
"There is no way to estimate the value of having more police officers on the street," said Councilman Harry Clarke. Clarke's comments came during Tuesday's Public Safety Committee meeting.
Some council members said the visibility of those police cruisers can help deter crime. Others said it's difficult to put a cost on citizens' safety.
Police officers can drive their cruisers to their homes and to work but can't drive them for personal errands. If a police officer has a second job, he or she can pay $50 a month toward gas. That policy went into effect in the fall of 2012 as a way to cut costs. Before that policy change, police officers could use their city-owned vehicles freely and at no cost.
The limitations on personal use of police vehicles has become a topic of discussion in the November mayoral election. Mayoral candidate and former Lexington police Chief Anthany Beatty has criticized Mayor Jim Gray for limiting police cruiser use. Since late June, the city has seen a surge in shootings, and the city recorded its 11th homicide this week. The more officers people see, the less likely it is that people will commit crimes, Beatty has said.
Gray's administration has been working with the Fraternal Order of Police for six months to amend the collective bargaining agreement to reinstate the policy. The program was a concession agreed to by the police during lean budget times.
But the program has not generated the $800,000 in savings it was estimated to generate.
For the 2013 calendar year, it saved roughly $288,000, according to numbers provided by the Gray administration.
Scott Shapiro, a senior adviser to Gray, said that overall mileage decreased, but not as much as originally estimated. Maintenance costs actually rose because of the age of the city's police fleet. Insurance costs, another key area of savings, remained about the same, he told the council Tuesday.
Shapiro said that crime decreased in 2013 by 7.8 percent during the time that personal use for police vehicles was restricted.
Councilman Kevin Stinnett said that it's difficult to say how the restrictions on personal use has altered crime rates, because the way crime is tracked and reported was changed two years ago.
Other members of the council asked why the council was not told that the administration was going to ask the FOP to consider a $50 monthly fee. Still others said they were concerned that the council was told about the proposal only on Tuesday. Information about the changes to the policy was was given to the council only shortly before the meeting. "I have concerns about the transparency, or lack of transparency," said Councilman Bill Farmer.
Shapiro said the city and FOP were still in talks, and that's why the information was not given to the council earlier.
Jamie Emmons, chief of staff for Gray, said that it was the FOP that decided to do away with personal use for police vehicles when the city asked for cost savings from the police department, fire department and other unions several years ago.
The $50 flat fee will help offset some of the costs — such as fuel — for restoring the program. Emmons and Shapiro began discussing changes to the policy with the FOP after a November Public Safety Committee meeting. During that meeting, estimates showed that the program was not generating the savings that it was supposed to.
About 359 police officers would likely be eligible for the expanded personal use of police vehicles.
Det. Jason Rothermund, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, said voting on the policy change began Tuesday and will conclude Sunday. Rothermund said a survey in February showed overwhelming support for the FOP to return to the city to re-open negotiations on the cruiser policy. Rothermund said he couldn't say whether the policy will pass.
"I've heard from both sides," Rothermund said.
If the FOP rejects the policy, the current policy that allows police officers only to drive to and from work will remain in effect until next year, when the current collective bargaining agreement with police expires.