Craig officers may get cars to take home

Craig Police Department Chief Walt Vanatta has proposed a program he believes will save the city money while keeping residential streets safer.

Vanatta has budgeted more than $131,000 to begin a program where each police officer has his or her own patrol car.

The program would increase public safety, incident response time and officer visibility and save the city money on vehicle purchases in the long run, Vanatta said.

"If (a plan) doesn't make economic sense and if it doesn't increase services, I'm not going to propose it," he said.

Vanatta has worked in three communities with a take-home car policy and is ready to introduce the philosophy to Craig residents. In each of the communities Vanatta has been in, residents commented favorably, without exception, about having police vehicles parked in their neighborhoods, Vanatta said. They all felt safer, experienced slower vehicle traffic and had less crime.

The Police Department has seven patrol vehicles for 13 officers. Those vehicles are run 24 hours a day and have a three-year, 80,000-mile life span. By purchasing seven more vehicles, Vanatta believes he can extend a vehicle life span by three to five years and 20,000 miles.

Extending the life span of a patrol car to just six years would save the department $1,600 in vehicle costs. Lease-purchasing seven patrol vehicles in 2000 will cost the department $51,774 for three years after which the department will own them. Purchasing the three patrol cars needed in 2000 to upgrade older models will cost the department $69,000.

The cost of equipping these cars with radios and the increase in warranty contracts will increase by $29,000, a figure Vanatta plans to make up in ongoing maintenance cost savings, the elimination of officer down time and eliminating the need for additional officers because of the police presence presented by the cars.

"This allows me, at no cost, to have more cars on the street," he said.

The program offers an increase in operational costs such as fuel, insurance and warranties, but comes with a decrease in capital costs. Vanatta said he won't be able to figure the difference until the program is up and running.

Vanatta estimates it takes each officer approximately 30 minutes at the beginning and end of each shift to load and unload a car with necessary equipment. He figured the savings amounts to $24,013 for this non-productive down time.

"While these are not 'hard' dollars, it is a significant loss," he said. "It is also a real detriment to providing continuity and quality of service."

Vanatta also figures the presence of additional cars will eliminate the need to hire new officers. He said the department would need to hire at least three more officers to have the same impact the cars would at a cost of $127,854 per year.

Benefits to the program, according to Vanatta, include promoting a sense of security for the residents of Craig, improving police and community relations by increasing off-duty personal contacts, deterring crime, providing a quicker response time to calls, improving the morale of officers and increasing traffic safety enforcement through increased visibility of marked police vehicles.

The program is also anticipated to reduce maintenance costs.

"The officers just take better care of (the cars)," Vanatta said. "It's like having a car of your own."

A study in Fort Collins showed it cost .02 cents per mile more for repairs and maintenance when officers share cars.

Having vehicles assigned to one officer would also allow the Department to find people responsible for damage or abuse to vehicles, both of which occur with some frequency in the Police department, Vanatta said.

"My mechanics feel they could put a finger on some of the abuse that's happening," said Road and Bridge Department Supervisor Randy Call. Road and Bridge Department mechanics service police vehicles.

Some city officials were concerned about the political hazards of implementing such a program.

"We've got a pretty substantial list of benefits, but it's not without its hazards," City Manager Jim Ferree said. "Politically it's going to be a tough sale to the public. It's a significant change to the City of Craig."

Councilors believe the public might be opposed to the program because it would seem more officers are patrolling the streets.

"Some people say they don't want more cops out there," Vanatta said. "You have to look at why they don't want more cops."

Based on cost savings and the benefits provided by the program, many City Council members were willing to take the risk.

"I'm willing to stick my political neck out for this plan," Councilor Bill Johnston said. "I just want to be sure I've got all my ducks in a row and my facts straight. I don't mind seeing police officers having this benefit. I think with the nature of the job, they deserve that."

Officers will not be allowed to use the cars for personal errands. According to the city charter, city vehicles cannot be used for personal use.

"If our chief of police and city manager have faith in this program and think it will work, I'm all for it," Counselor Don Jones said.

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