We applaud the five City Council members who owned up this week to the mistake the Council made two weeks ago in negating police officers' take-home car allowances. In an attempt to restore the policy, the council's narrow majority voted to pursue ways to finance a reinstatement of the old policy, but only for officers who reside in the city.
The council's Jan. 4 decision to stop the free take-home car privilege, and to impose a mileage fee for take-home cars -- 20 cents a mile for officers who reside in the city, and 30 cents for those outside -- was intended to help trim the budget in lieu of cutting other vital services.
Still, it left a bitter taste for officers who rightly believe that the policy was started years ago, and then continued, in lieu of a pay increase. Advocates of continuing the policy also believe, with good reason, that its benefit in police visibility and availability for emergencies well outweighs the purely fiscal costs of allowing take-home privileges for police cruisers.
Indeed, many would also argue that the better care, lower maintenance costs and longer life of cars assigned for take-home use exceeds, or at least negates, the higher fuel expense for off-duty, take-home mileage.
The policy now proposed would restore the free, take-home car policy for officers who reside inside the city limits. It would maintain the new 30-cents-a-mile charge for officers who live outside the city and drive their cruisers to homes miles away from the city's border.
One option being considered would charge the latter group of officers for the mileage just from the city limits to their homes. That would be a fair, even generous, compromise on the city's part.
For the city taxpayers who are footing the bill, the primary value of letting off-duty police officers take their police cruisers home is enhanced crime deterrence and emergency response due to the increased visibility of police cars and the potential for officers to immediately respond to emergency situations. When police officers drive to homes outside of the city, however, they deprive Chattanooga taxpayers of their full share of those benefits.
The cumulative effect of that is significant. More than 60 percent of the city's 428-member police force lives outside Chattanooga's city limits. Many, including police Chief Bobby Dodd, reside in Soddy-Daisy. Some officers live still farther away, near Hamilton County's northern border with Rhea County, which lies nearly 20 miles outside the city limits. At $3 or more a gallon for a gas-slurping police cruiser, the mileage-and-maintenance costs for such commutes negate the public justification for take-home cars. Moreover, police officers who do not live in the city do not even pay into the city tax coffers that support their jobs and salaries.
It would not be rational now to require fire and police department members to reside in the city. The pool of qualified potential recruits would be too narrow to make that a viable policy. But city officials would do well to consider incentives to entice police office officers, fire department personnel and members of other emergency response services to live inside the city -- and even to live in particular sections of the city.
Any well-considered incentive policy that encourages essential personnel to live in the city which pays their salary would be a step toward greater loyalty and improved services. That would benefit both the people who pay city taxes, and the employees who provide their crucial services.