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Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield is feeling the heat from the city’s police officers who are not happy about a change in their take home car policy.
Mayor Littlefield said the executive order is temporary and free take home car privileges for all city employees will be restored when the city budget improves.
But police officers say they are bearing the burden of fixing a budget deficit while safety on the streets could suffer.
Sergeant Zach McCullough, who patrols the East Lake and Highland Park areas, said “my immediate concern is it’s money out of my paycheck.”
Sgt. McCullough said paying for a take home car amounts to a 4.7% pay cut.
The mayor’s order says city employees like Sgt. McCullough will now have to pay for the privilege of taking a city vehicle home or leave it parked at the office while off duty.
Officers said a prime example of the benefit of a take home car happened earlier this week when Sgt. Phil Hedden was coming to work in his patrol car and responded to a home invasion and shooting on Patrick Place. Four suspects were caught and charged with the crimes.
“Well, he still has the opportunity to take his police car if he wants to, it’s just $50 per pay period,” mayor Littlefield said after being asked about the incident.
The mayor said either parking city vehicles after hours or having city employees pay to drive them home helps fill a $1.4-million hole in the city budget. If they ride home it’s $50 every two weeks. If police officers only use patrol cars to ride to and from second jobs while off duty it’s $25 a paycheck. If they take their cars home and use them to ride to second jobs it’s $75 per paycheck.
“We’re being asked to essentially pay to provide a service to the public now, a service we provide that no other city employee provides off duty,” Sgt. McCullough said.
Sgt. McCullough said about 83% of city vehicles are police cars and officers are unfairly shouldering much of the responsibility to help trim the budget.
“Well that’s just a coincidence as everybody who drives a vehicle, including me, is affected by the same policy,” Mayor Littlefield responded.
The mayor says it’s a perk to get a city vehicle to drive while off-duty and is still good deal compared with employees getting their own car and paying for gas, tires, maintenance, insurance and other expenses. He said $50 a paycheck amounts to about a tank of gas a week. He added many officers use city cars to work second jobs.
“And many officers actually make money with their city car, city gas, city tires, city maintenance and all of that,” Mayor Littlefield said.
Sgt. McCullough said if officers park their cars after hours it will negatively impact response times for those who have specialized duties.
For example, he said K-9 officers will have to drive their patrol cars home after their shift to drop their dogs off, then drive the city car to the Police Services Center to get their personal car to drive home. If they get called out on a K-9 request while off duty they will have to drive to get their patrol car, then drive the patrol car home to get the dog and then drive to the incident.
Same goes for members of the SWAT team or crime scene investigators Sgt. McCullough said, as they will have to drive first to the Police Services Center to get their cars then drive to the scene with their specialized equipment.
“It all seems that the mayor wants to target us to make up this shortfall, a shortfall which is no fault of our own,” Sgt. McCullough added.
We spoke with city employees in other departments who say they’re not sure yet if they’ll pay the $50 a paycheck or leave their city car parked after hours.
The City Council has the final say on the budget so paying for a take home car is not yet set in stone. The City Council has until the end of this month to pass a budget.