A perk proposed by the the police chief to help with recruitment would allow police officers to live farther from Decatur and still drive their patrol vehicles to and from work with gas paid by the city.
Decatur Police Chief Nate Allen wants the City Council to extend the distance police officers can drive their police vehicles home from 5 to 20 miles outside the city limits as a “recruiting tool” for his short-handed department.
If adopted by the City Council, the expanded take-home policy would allow officers to drive patrol vehicles home to an area that would include residences east of downtown Huntsville, or in Elkmont, Rogersville, Town Creek, Cullman or Lacey's Spring.
Allen said the expanded benefit is necessary to compete effectively with neighboring law enforcement agencies.
“(Police) departments around us are causing us to increase our take-home policy,” Allen said. “It’s causing us to lose officers. If we extend our limit, we could possibly steal some of their officers. We want to be on a level playing field.”
Human Resources Director Richelle Sandlin said the Police Department has 182 employees with 14 officer vacancies.
“We’re down seven plus the seven we’re historically short on (filling),” Sandlin said.
Chief Financial Officer Kyle Demeester said 17 additional active Police Department employees would qualify for taking home their police vehicle outside the city if the resolution is adopted. Including maintenance, oil and gas at $2.49 per gallon (the most recent price the city paid for gas on Aug. 18), he estimated the annual cost for the city would be $23,613.
In a comparison of take-home policies, Hartselle Mayor Randy Garrison said his city’s long-standing rule for police officers is they can go to and from home in police vehicles if they live within 25 miles of the city.
Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson said his department’s take-home policy is “within Limestone County.” The farthest this could be is just under 14 miles.
Lt. Lamar Anderson, of Madison Police Department, said his department makes decisions on a case-by-case basis but typically they allow officers to take their police vehicles home up to a 25-mile radius outside of the city.
Huntsville allows officers to drive their patrol car home in the city (which reaches into Limestone and Morgan counties) and Madison County.
The proposal has the council majority’s support, with Council President Jacob Ladner and councilmen Carlton McMasters, Kyle Pike and Hunter Pepper saying this is a needed change to help the department. A vote on the resolution is scheduled for Tuesday.
Councilman Billy Jackson is the lone dissenting voice. He opposes the resolution, partly due to its cost and his concerns about increased city liability, but also because he feels its impact will be to decrease the safety of Decatur neighborhoods.
"A police vehicle that's parked in a driveway in Decatur is much more valuable to our community than a police vehicle that's parked in a driveway in Cullman," Jackson said Friday. "It makes our neighborhoods safer."
McMasters called Allen’s proposal “a valid request.” He said he is hopeful this proposal along with police officer raises that are in the proposed fiscal 2022 budget “is another piece of the pie in the effort to recruit and retain police officers.”
Ladner said one of the council’s main jobs is public safety.
“Recruiting and keeping the Police Department fully staffed is one of our big responsibilities,” Ladner said. “It’s a basic function.”
The Personnel Department recommended in June that the city increase all officers' pay by 13.1% at an additional cost of $960,000. The raises are also in the proposed fiscal 2022 budget that the City Council has to consider before Oct. 1. Incorporated in the 13.1% increase for police officers is a 2.5% cost of living adjustment for all city employees that’s also in the proposed budget, Ladner said.
The recommended increase would raise starting officers’ pay from $37,286 to $42,186, which Sandlin said would bring Decatur police in line with neighboring cities that it competes with for new officers.
“The amount is so small and petty,” Pepper said of the cost of allowing officers to take their police vehicles 20 miles outside of the city.
“If it helps with recruiting, then it’s a cost-effective step. The wear and tear on the vehicles is the only concern. We don’t have enough officers, so we need to do whatever we can to help the department,” Pepper said.
Pepper said a benefit to the city of the extended take-home policy also is that an officer could respond more quickly to the scene instead of having to drive to the Police Department to get their police cruiser.
“If there’s a mass casualty, the officer can jump and go without having to travel to the office (to pick up his or her vehicle),” Pepper said.
Jackson said he is concerned with the additional cost of gas and the added wear and tear on the city-owned police vehicles, most of which are now SUVs.
Jackson said this issue doesn’t do anything to improve public safety or help the city financially, and he also worries about increased liability for the city from traffic accidents during lengthy commutes in police vehicles.
“This neither shows fiscal accountability nor fiscal sense,” Jackson said. “It’s easy to sit back and say this isn’t a significant amount of money, but we’re in charge of looking at thousands of dollars even down to the penny.”