By Daniel Silliman
The Clayton County police chief saw crowded parking lots, a dip in morale and an increase in mileage reimbursement requests, in the first few days after a new county policy took effect.
The policy, passed in November in an attempt to save money and stop some abuses, bans most county employees from taking home their county-assigned vehicles. Previously, officers, and many other county employees, were allowed to take vehicles home, if they lived fewer than 25 miles outside the county.
The police department was hardest hit by the new policy. When the new rule took effect in the beginning of February, 86 officers had their take-home cars taken away, and had to get other transportation to and from work.
Surveying the precinct and headquarters parking lots on Monday, Chief Jeff Turner said the effect of the new policy was as obvious as the lack of parking spaces.
"It's awful full now, before, during and after work," he said. "There are some parking issues, but they're manageable. The employees are going to have to leave space for people to come to the police station, so some employees are parking down the hill [at headquarters]. They're going to have to hump up that hill, walk up that hill in the cold and the dark."
The department received exceptions for 68 vehicles, which can be driven to officers' homes outside Clayton's borders, because the officers are on call. Between the original proposal, from the commissioners, and the final decision, the county increased the department's take-home allotment significantly.
Exceptions were also made for Jeff Metarko, director of Transportation and Development, Frank Smith, warden of Clayton County Prison, Detrick Stanford, director of Parks and Recreation, and for five vehicles allotted to the Clayton County Fire Department.
Fire Department Capt. Landry Merkison said the five vehicles are being used by firefighters who are on call 24-hours a day, and the policy has not made a major difference to the department.
"We didn't have that many cars going out in the first place," Merkison said. "So we haven't really had a problem."
At the police department, though, some of the officers appeared to feel the policy change was a slap in their faces and a demonstration of county officials' opinions about police. Officers said they rely on the vehicle, financially, and consider themselves police officers even when they are not on duty.
Some citizen activists vocally opposed the change, saying it put the county in danger.
More than 200 people have signed a petition authored by Henry Anderson and Rosa Barbee, asking for the policy to be overturned, and that the police department be given all the take-home vehicles requested by the chief.
Four days after the policy took effect, Turner said that officer's "morale is down. They're still doing their jobs and are proud to serve Clayton County, but of course, [the policy] is going to do something to morale."
Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell defended the decision, before the finale vote in January, saying the 25-mile rule was hard to enforce and being broken regularly and the county was facing a fuel cost increase of about $1 million, annually.
Turner, however, said he is worried about the financial impact of the new policy. At a weekly meeting held every Monday morning, officers required to attend even though they're not on duty turned in requests for mileage reimbursement. An officer who is driving to Forsyth, Ga., for training in crime-scene investigation, will probably turn in about $200 in mileage charges, by the end of the week, Turner said.
The county pays 48.5 cents a mile, and Turner does not know how the department's going to afford that. "I guess it's coming out of our budget somewhere, and the bad part is, we didn't budget for this. We didn't know that policy was going to take effect this year. I just have to hope the commissioners are understanding," Turner said.
Once some of the new policy's costs are calculated, Turner said he plans to return to the board and ask them to revisit the issue.