Cops will keep take-home cars

In a five-four vote, the Henderson City Council last night chose to allow Henderson police officers who reside in Vance County to continue to take vehicles home.

The debate began with a scheduled presentation from Rickey Padgett of the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association.

Padgett told the council that he is a law enforcement officer of 22 years and that he comes from an agency that has had take home vehicles since 1988.

“What you see here today is where the rubber meets the road,” Padgett said to members, indicating the approximately 26 Henderson Police Department officers who attended the meeting. “They represent Henderson very well.”

“No matter what you decide here tonight, they’re going to be just as professional as they were when they walked in this door, because that’s what they are. That’s what we do,” he told council members.

Padgett argued against taking away take-home vehicles, telling council members that if police are in private vehicles, they are liable if they respond to calls while in those vehicles. He further stated that police officers are expected to be professionals “7/24”, to handle trouble all the time.

“It’s not always about the car,” Padgett said. “It’s about the badge and what they do.”

Padgett told the council that law enforcement officers are the only eschelon of city or county employees who are expected to give their lives for people they do not even know.

He concluded his presentation by urging the council to “make decision as a citizen, not as a politician”.

After another public comment, the council then addressed Item 12a on the agenda, “Police Individually Assigned Vehicle Policy”.

Henderson Police Chief Glen Allen passed out copies of General Order 200-6 to council members. General Order 200-6 is the police department’s current take-home vehicle policy that would have been superceded by City Manager Jerry Moss’s policy that was to have gone into effect on May 1 of this year.

Allen began his remarks by dispelling what he perceived as misinformation. He told the council that he did not intend his remarks to be a challenge or disrespect towards anyone. Allen said that this was simply a request for a review of the department’s operational procedure. He told members that he would continue to support the council and Mr. Moss in his efforts to reduce cost and save money and that he expected the police department to do the same. He remarked that he understood the urgency of those needs.

Allen informed the council that the police department is still under budget for fuel consumption as of the last report that he had. He further stated that since he had been in Henderson, since 1997, that the department had always managed to come in under budget.

“We will follow policy,” Allen reiterated.

The police chief gave background information on General Order 200-6. In March of 1998, the Public Safety Committee approved the policy. Allen claimed by recollection that the policy went before and was approved by the city council.

It is unclear whether a written record exists of the council meeting where the policy was approved. However, according to Allen, there exists a record of a review of the policy that was submitted to and accepted by the council in a subsequent meeting.

Allen disputed Moss’s use of the $.48/mile IRS rate, claiming that it was used by the IRS immediately after the Katrina disaster. He claimed that a $.445/mile rate was more realistic. He also informed the council that the police department does not pay road tax on fuel, thus reducing the cost by an additional 20%. Allen estimated the total savings at $16,000 over the course of the year.

The chief acknowledged that Moss’s plan would curtail crime in the city, reward officers who live in town, and might curtail improper use of vehicles.

Allen admitted that improper use had occurred and that the department had been slack in enforcement. He told the council that it would not happen anymore. He noted that such use exposed the city to liability and could be perceived as an unfair “perk” for police officers.

As for disadvantages, Allen claimed that the department had lost an officer due to the planned implimentation of the new city vehicle policy. He told the council that replacing that officer would cost between $41,000 and $45,000. He claimed that losing one officer would be a $19,000 net loss. Losing a second officer, according to Allen, would be a $61,000 loss.

The police chief also claimed that department moral would be diminshed, as well as response time. He also noted that a lot of services are provided by officers in police vehicles while off-duty that are not turned in for pay, such as detaining suspects until an on-duty car arrives or going to court. He told the council that washing and light maintenence, currently done by officers at home, would now have to be done by officers while on duty.

The chief told the council that 3 1/2% of officer’s salaries would be used by officers if they were to provide their own transportation to and from work.

Among liabilities, the chief also noted that take-home cars had been used as recruitment incentives. He told the council that he felt as if they were going back on their word.

Allen also claimed that cars parked in one place could be “mass-vandalized”. Also, if they were parked in one place, he envisioned scenarios where officers might not be able to get to them.

Another asset of the take-home car noted by Allen is that no new cars were purchased last year. He attributed this to individually assigned cars.

Henderson Mayor Clem Seifert called the presence of this item on the council agenda a “unique circumstance” and a “step on a slippery slope”. He said that he did not want to interfere with the authority of the manager to run the city. In this case, however, there was a specific policy that the council had endorsed. Seifert stated that he was afraid that when public policy was endorsed by the council that the council should not let an administrative decision take it away.

He called it a “bad precident”.

Seifert further stated that it would be inappropriate for the council to intervene if it had never been involved.

Moss stated that he could find no record of where the policy had been approved by the council. He noted that it had been approved by the Public Safety Committee. Quoting General Order 200-6, he noted that the policy is subject to modification or revocation at any time. He also noted that the policy says that the purpose of the take-home vehicles is to maintain high visibility in the city. He further quoted the policy’s rules against the transporting of children and others without the approval of the chief.

Moss told the council that he currently anticipates a cost of $370,000 for gasoline and diesel for next year, a figure he equated to six cents on a dollar of tax.

Police cruisers average eight miles per gallon.

“My concern is saving money,” Moss said. “I’m not here to do anything but what’s right for the city.”

Moss went on to say that he has not had one other employee other than the police say anthing about parking vehicles.

Council member Bernard Alston asked why gasoline estimates are based on the cost of mid-grade fuel.

Moss responded that police cars are built to run on mid-grade.

Alston claimed that he had heard that they can run on 87 octane unless the manufacturer specifically states otherwise.

Moss replied that the city had tried it and had gotten complaints.

Seifert asked City Attorney John Zollicoffer who the person would be to modify or revoke General Order 200-6 and what the city’s role was. Zollicoffer replied that the city’s role is to set policy and that the council can override policy when it wants to.

City Council member Mary Emma Evans asked if the council could override the decision of the city manager. Zollicoffer answered in the affirmative.

Evans stated that after listening to Padgett and Allen that taking cars away from officers was going to impose a great hardship on the police department. She stated that families have become dependent on the cars. She also noted that officers were hired with the promise of keeping cars.

“I think we have employees who drive cars home,” Evans said, referring to employees exempt from Moss’s policy. “If all are not going to park, the police should not park.”

Evans then made a motion to keep General Order 200-6. Council member Lonnie Davis seconded the motion.

Davis then commented that the issue was discussed in 1998 and that studies were done. He said that there was no hardship in doing this [retaining General Order 200-6]. He also said that if there was a group of people who deserve perks, it is the police department. He further said that if we have financial problems, we have to support the officers. It makes no sense to lose them to Norlina.

Moss noted that there are officers who are coming back to the Henderson Police Department.

The Reverend John Miles, who vocalized support towards officers keeping take-home cars several times during the debate, attempted to address the council. He was denied permission to speak by Seifert.

Moss asked that if the policy was recinded that it be recinded for all employees.

Seifert responded that the scope of the motion was for the police and to protect General Order 200-6 from the new vehicle policy.

Council member Lynn Harper spoke for the first time in the debate, stating that the format the manager had come up with was that anyone who lived in the city would keep their car, and that this was to encourage people to live in the city. She told the council that the purpose of the effort was to reduce expenses, and that it was commendable of Moss to do so knowing that it would be a fight. She noted that later in the meeting a 3% raise would be recommended, and that it “will bring you back to square”.

Harper stated that she would support what Moss had come up with.

Council member Elissa Yount reminded the council that one of its top priorities was to reduce consumption of gas.

Seifert stated that he was not sure it was the council’s top priority.

When the vote finally came, council members Evans, Alston, Daeke, and Davis voted to preserve General Order 200-6 from the new vehicle policy. Members Harper, Gupton, Yount, and Wilkerson voted against the motion. Seifert cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the motion.

This is the first tie vote of the 2005-2007 council.

Later in the meeting, council member Ranger Wilkerson asked that no city employees be subjected to the new vehicle policy if the police department were exempt.

Harper expressed agreement with Wilkerson and suggested that it be left up to the city manager.

Moss responded that he would be glad to do as Wilkerson had suggested. He recommended that he be allowed to limit the vehicles to Vance County, noting that the only police vehicle to leave Vance County is because the officer in question transports a K-9.

The city manager asked the council to look at the jurisdiction of the Henderson Police Department in Vance County. He claimed that Vance County is the only county where a municipal police department has county-wide jurisdiction.