Sylva might provide police officers take-home cars that they can drive to and from work and gas up for free.
The perk would help attract and retain officers, Police Chief Davis Woodard told board members during a Feb. 20 work session on the 2014-15 budget.
“It’s one of the first questions people ask when we interview them for a job. On the exit interview, when somebody leaves, they say, ‘We didn’t have take-home cars,’” Woodard said.
The Sheriff’s Office provides individual cars to its deputies. So does the town of Franklin; officers there pay $15 a month to help cover the cost of gas for taking cars home. Bryson City provides its police chief a take-home car.
Sylva has 15 officers, including Woodard. The police department has 11 cars.
Take-home cars are generally calculated to add $5,000-$7,000 annually to an employee’s pay. Woodard, Assistant Chief Tammy Hooper and Lt. Rick Bryson currently have assigned vehicles; town Manager Paige Roberson is the only other Sylva employee given a vehicle to drive home and back.
In lieu of take-home cars, some local governments provide select employees monthly vehicle stipends.
Sylva is working toward a set replacement schedule to rotate new squad cars into service and high-mileage cars out. Woodard said he has two cars this year and two cars next year “desperate” for replacement; get three cars instead of two each time and there’s the town’s take-home fleet, he said.
Officers would be required to live within the county to participate in the program, but whether they could, say, live at the head of Caney Fork and commute back and forth would need discussion, Roberson said.
Town police officers must move into Jackson or a neighboring county within a year of being hired. None currently live within the town’s limits, several are just outside the borders, Woodard said. Two of the 15-member force live out of county; 13 are county residents.
Take-home cars for law enforcement officers are a trend in North Carolina, as both Roberson and Mayor Maurice Moody noted. Recently, however, some towns and cities elsewhere have cut or limited take-home car programs, spurred by higher gas prices, budget constraints and occasional misuse.
Supporters say providing officers’ assigned cars reduces response times, increases efficiency and morale, extends vehicle life and serves as a crime deterrent by increasing police visibility.
The most comprehensive, and frequently cited, study of take-home cars and police departments was released in 2004 by a University of North Carolina researcher looking at the City of Tacoma, Wash. The researcher compared a fleet of 30 assigned vehicles to a pool of 34 vehicles over an eight-year period.
The researcher found operating costs per mile were 30 percent lower for assigned rather than pooled vehicles; assigned vehicles were replaced on average every 60 months instead of 20 to 26 months for pooled vehicles; over the study’s eight-year review, assigned vehicles required $1,375 per year in car accident and damage costs compared to $8,400 for pooled vehicles.