Pulaski Council approves new take home vehicle policy

The Town of Pulaski now has a new policy on take home vehicles, following action taken during Tuesday’s Council meeting.

On a motion by Vice Mayor Greg East, council voted 4-2 to establish a new policy that limits take home vehicles to traveling only to the county’s boundaries. The new policy also authorizes Town Manager Shawn Utt to determine – on an individual case basis – any take home vehicle traveling outside the county’s boundaries.

Councilmen H.M. Kidd and Lane Penn cast the lone dissenting votes.

Council and town staff have debated the take home vehicle issue for some time.  Councilmembers had stated previously they hear more questions and complaints from citizens over seeing town vehicles outside the county than any other issue – except possibly water bills.

The issue started to come to a head a couple weeks ago when council was presented information on the number of miles being driven out of the county by take home vehicles that were not on town business.

One vehicle being driven back and forth by a police officer living in Woodlawn would rack up over 19,000 miles of non-town business driving in a year, council learned, with the total of non-town business driving going out of the county totaling nearly 70,000 miles a year.

Utt had explained to council earlier that the police department had long observed a policy that limited take home vehicles to traveling 15.38 miles from town. Utt said he had earlier approved a “pilot program” that allowed employees to take vehicles home outside the 15.38-mile limit, including about five police officers taking advantage of the program.

Utt opened discussion on the issue Tuesday night with a recommendation that council consider the 15.38-mile limit on take home vehicles to remain the policy. “What we’re (staff) looking for is what is council’s desires,” Utt stated.

Councilman Jamie Radcliffe said flatly, “I don’t think vehicles should leave Pulaski County.”

East told Utt that wear and tear on town vehicles along with excessive mileage are the concerns.

East said he isn’t sure that having an “arbitrary radius” is the way to go.

“I’m more inclined to have hard boundaries,” East said. “And let you (Utt) have authority to make exceptions based on certain criteria where you deem necessary. I think that makes more sense.”

“I agree,” Penn stated. “I think the cars should stay in the county.”

Councilman Joseph Goodman said the policy observed by the Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office makes sense. Utt had earlier updated council on the PCSO policy, which allows deputies to take home vehicles as far as five miles beyond the county’s boundaries.  That policy went into effect in January, he said.

Goodman said deputies must cover the entire county depending on where they are.

“But we’re (Pulaski) a small circle on that big map,” Goodman said.

“There is a point where we just have to say, ‘enough is enough’ on the wear and tear on our vehicles,” Goodman stated.

Goodman said there is evidence that vehicles tend to “do a little better and last a little longer” if the officers can take them home, and it “also gives them a perk since we can’t pay our officers what we ought to pay them.”

Goodman continued that council must come up with a “careful balance.”

“I think taking this (take home vehicles) away from our folks living outside the county would be wrong. That’s just not fair to them. But, moving forward, it needs to be understood that the policy is the county limits and the town manger has the ability to make a decision if there is a business reason that justifies an exception.”

“To have an arbitrary 15.38-mile radius is not sustainable,” he added.

Kidd voiced support for keeping the take home vehicle policy the way it is.

“I know a lot of people don’t like it,” Kidd said. “But it’s a perk for the police department.  It’s a tool to keep the officers we have.  It costs so much to equip and train new officers, and we’re losing all these officers. I don’t have a problem with the take home vehicles, it’s like an incentive program to keep well-trained officers and to have a good working relationship with them.”

East countered that council had earlier adopted a compensation study that established a path for making the town competitive with other police departments in pay and benefits.

“So, I don’t believe take home vehicles are necessarily a perk,” he said.

Utt replied he was “fairly certain” take home cars were factored into the compensation study. “But I’ll have to check,” he said.

Radcliffe, noting the “longest case” in the police department of an employee driving a take home vehicle had been dealt with, said his concern is the total number of miles (69,000) driven on non-town business.

“I know everyone would like to get this issue taken care of now, but it appears there is some information the town manager must clarify. So, unless someone wants to make a motion…,” said Mayor Nick Glenn.

“I think we have a motion tonight,” stated Goodman.

His motion was to change the take home vehicle policy for newly advertised positions, and have it be limited to the boundaries of Pulaski County, with existing employees driving out of the county being “grandfathered.” Any deviation from that policy would be subject to Utt’s approval.

East objected, saying the grandfathering of current employees driving outside the county amounted to a “blanket.”

“It changes nothing,” East said. “I would be inclined to support allowing the town manager to have that discretion, but grandfathering undermines what we’re trying to do.”

Goodman defended his motion, saying the reason he phrased it that way “is because we made an agreement with existing employees as to what they can and cannot do.”

“We don’t want to make this too complicated,” East countered, suggesting setting the county’s boundaries as the limit, with the town manager having discretion based on prior obligations made to specific individuals. “But not a blanket,” he said.

Penn then asked to make a substitute motion, which prompted Goodman to withdraw his earlier motion.

Penn’s motion was to set the take home vehicle policy at Pulaski County’s boundaries.

East said he still thought Utt should have discretion to make exceptions to that policy.

Councilman David Clark interjected that if the town “hires someone, and a contract is signed which states the town is going to pay so much and provide certain benefits, and then six months later we say we don’t like your salary and we’re going to cut it. That’s illegal,” he said.

Utt noted that new police officers sign a three-year contract, which includes the 15.38-mile radius.  “It says they are allowed a take home vehicle, but it’s not guaranteed,” Utt said.

Penn’s motion was defeated 4-2 with Radcliffe siding with him.

East then offered a new motion, setting Pulaski County’s boundaries as the take home vehicle limit, and authorizing Utt to have discretion on an individual basis.

That motion was approved, 4-2.

By Mike Williams, The Patriot