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City passes take-home car policy

By Martin Burkey
DAILY Staff Writer 340-2441

Despite objections from police and firefighters, Decatur City Council passed a policy on take-home vehicles for city employees that could force some to park their city cars at night.

Effective June 6, most city employees allowed to take home a city vehicle at night must live inside the city limits or the three-mile police jurisdiction.

Police Department employees now allowed to take home a police car must live within five miles of the city limits in a county in which they have full arrest powers, which includes Morgan and part of Limestone County.

Officers who are part of the Special Response or Canine units who don't meet that requirement were given one year, until June 5, 2006, to comply with it.

The resolution's wording was slightly modified from the version introduced at the council agenda work session last week. The first version caught department heads by surprise. It required all city employees with a take-home vehicle to live within three miles of the city limits.

The council rejected a last-minute request from Fire Chief Charlie Johnson to give four of his employees the same leeway as police. Councilman Ray Metzger proposed it as an amendment during the council meeting, but it died without a second.

The vote was 4-0 with Councilman Gary Hammon absent.

Later, Jackson said the fire employees don't need to respond in an emergency.

City officials don't have a total of how many employees are allowed to take vehicles home for various reasons. But they agree that most of them are police officers who become eligible for the take-home provision after two years.

Police Chief Joel Gilliam said the old policy limited take-home vehicles to within five miles of the police jurisdiction or farther at the discretion of himself and the mayor. Several officers live in Hartselle. At least one Spanish-speaking officer lives in Huntsville.

The Police Department policy was created to extend the life of cars from three years to as much as five to seven years by allowing officers to take them home at night instead of keeping them in service. It also allows officers driving to work or going home to respond to crimes or accidents they encounter.

Council President Billy Jackson, who requested the resolution, said he supports a take-home policy for employees, particularly police. He sees those cars as a deterrent effect to crime, and he wants officers to use them for errands to grocery stores, schools and ball games. But it doesn't do any good if the cars are parked at stores and ballgames in other towns, he said.

"We want more visibility," he said. "That's what we're trying to accomplish with this take-home thing. Cars are going to other areas, to Hartselle, to Athens and who knows where else. That does not benefit us. There is a cost there. There's a liability associated with that. The citizens are the ones who pay taxes, pay for the gas, the oil changes, the full nine yards."

Gilliam said eight officers with take-home cars live outside the new five-mile limit. It will be up to them to move closer or turn in their cars, he said.

The police chief said he's worried it will shorten the lifetime of a fleet when there may well be no capital replacement plan for the next two years. If the aim of the policy is to see more police cars traveling the streets of Decatur, then it won't matter whether a take-home police car is parked in a Hartselle driveway or unused in a city lot in Decatur.

"My assessment is the ordinance will have minimal impact on the original line on who could take cars home," he said. "We will make this work. It's going to change the way we do business, but it's not going to be fatal."

Police say it will, however, require officers who live outside the city and are called to work in an emergency to drive to a parking lot, transfer their gear to a police car and drive to a crime or emergency scene. Several members of the SWAT and K-9 teams live beyond the five-mile limit. Inevitably, the new policy will make response times longer, they say.

On a personal level, they note, some officers bought houses and sold the second family car based on the take-home policy, and the new policy will hit their bank accounts.

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