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Baltimore cops and take-home cars

Many jobs come with perks, and for city employees, one of the most sought-after is getting a car to take home. It is an expense that some on the City Council are trying to curb, and one that lawmakers and officials have for years complained about, as Anne Linskey's story points out today.

She got the list of positions, mileage and fuel costs, which doesn't tell the entire story because it is for trips back and forth between the homes of these city officials and their work. The agency with the most take-home cars -- either the biggest abuser or the biggest benefactor, depending on your perspective: city police (even though they've reduced their number by 40 since last year).

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And most cops don't live in Baltimore, so we're talking some grand commutes here. The calculations are based on mileage from a home address to Baltimore and Charles streets, each way, for 22 work days a month.

It's quite telling to learn how many police and civilian police officials that rate high enough to have take-home cars, costing taxpayers an estimated $262,138 a year, live outside the city. In fact, only 18 cops live in Baltimore; 105 live outside the city, 22 more live in Pennsylvania and one each in Virginia and Delaware.

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The department's chief spokesman lives in Alexandria, Va. One commander lives in Dover, Del (an estimated commute of 174 miles that cost an estimated $,454 a year). Detectives in Internal Affairs commute from the city and points beyond.

The question is whether the take-home cars are a perk or a necessity. The police spokesman defended it as a necessity in Annie Linskey's story saying commanders need to respond quickly to emergencies and inquires from their bosses. Surely, a district commander needs a car. But how many times does the technical services chief for the communications section of the Administrative Division have to speed to an emergency from home? (Ok, when 911 goes down, I want it fixed fast, but that's got to be such a rare occurrance that I'd gladly pay extra for him to use his personal car). Does the major in charge of administration have to have a take-home car?

This was an issue back when Martin O'Malley first took over City Hall and many commanders lost their department vehicles. Back then, the mayor, not a City Councilman, was doing the culling, so cops and others were tripping over themselves to give up their cars. And then-Commissioner Edward T. Norris pulled the car from the car from the director of planning and research. "He's a daytime guy," the chief said.

Other suburban agencies, such as Anne Arundel, Montgomery and Prince George's give all officers vehicles to take home, though some restrict it to officers who live in the jurisdiction or require that the cars never leave the county. It's a perk some departments can afford, and neighbors love it to see a marked cruiser parked on the street or in a driveway.

Baltimore cannot afford such luxury, and with so many cops living outside the city lines, it wouldn't make much sense. Patrol cars are recycled shift after shift, most going 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

And who can forget back in 2001 when a dispute over a take-home car embroiled the police department, led to the deputy police commissioner conducting an unauthorized sting on a police major that involved using a pass key to take his car from his driveway and call a stolen car report into the Maryland State Police. It cost several jobs.

This issue is nothing new:

Back in 2000, the city's new mayor, Martin O'Malley, went on a tear to get agencies to give up unnecessary take-home cars. I remember that even his aides had trouble convincing department heads to come clean.

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When they did, they reduced take-home police cars from 133 to 72 (it's now back to 148) and Public Works from 61 to 29. O'Malley complained that the cars had become less a perk and seen more a "contractual perk." The city sold off its eight-passenger golf cart, a robin's-egg-blue 1967 Cadillac DeVille parade convertible and an 18-passenger van.

Back then, Sean Malone, then the police department's chief legal counsel, turned down keys to a 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier, even though he need to drive to Annapolis on some days to handle appeals. "I don't respond to emergencies," he told me then.

The major of planning in research had to give up his 2000 Chevy Lumina -- "he's a daytime guy," the commissioner said then -- and I was glad to see that the position is not on this new list.

Of course, it's not only cops who get take-home cars. The Fire Department has 30; nine for fire officals who live in the city. The longest commute belongs to the Homeland Security chief, 154.8 miles back and forth from Caroline County. The Sheriff's Departmenthas 39 take-home cars, 31 for deputies who live in the city and eight who live in Baltimore County.

Other agencies have a total 29 take-home cars combined; the longest commute in that category belongs to a public works official in the waste-water department, who drives a 2007 Chevrolet Trailblazer 112.4 miles round-trip to Charles County.


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