Public safety workers using take-home cars now required to pay

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For the first time, Indianapolis police officers and firefighters with take-home cars will have to pay to use those vehicles off the city's clock.

Grocery stores, coffee shops and the neighborhood gym are all places you might see a Metro Police officer, like those Eyewitness News found, climbing into a cruiser off-duty.

Running personal errands in a take-home car has been a sore subject in Marion County for years. Now officers and firefighters who use the cruisers for personal use have to pay.

"I think some people can misuse it. So I'm kind of back and forth on that.  I don't see it as a huge problem," said Heidi West of Indianapolis.

Starting this month, officers and fire investigators who live in county and opt to drive their cars off-duty or for part-time work must pay $65 a month.  It's the equivalent of two oil changes or a tank of gas.

Those living out of county can drive the car to and from work for business purposes for only $81 a month.

If officers living out of county opt for personal use, their charge jumps to $146 a month.         

"This isn't about fuel. I think this is about money," said FOP President Bill Owensby, who isn't happy about any of it.

"We have always maintained that the vehicles are a piece of equipment. Just like a firearm, just like a night stick," Owensby argued.

Two years ago, Owensby supported a $51 per month proposed fuel surcharge to help the city cover increasing gas prices.  But Mayor Greg Ballard's administration never implemented the fees, calling it a tax.

Owensby says the city's fuel budget is not out of balance now, and questions the timing of the fees.

"We just feel it's a little disingenuous of the city to take the fuel surcharge out of our pockets when they can't honor the contract and can't give us a raise," Owensby told Eyewitness News.

"We all know that we're fiscally challenged, and we operate as efficiently as possible," responded  Valerie Cunningham, IMPD's Deputy Chief of Administration.  She says she's gladly paying the fee.

Based on officer commitments, the program will bring in about $1.4 million to help support the city's $11 million maintenance budget.

The only thing Cunningham and Owensby agree on is the benefit of having police officers in take-home cars ready to respond to crisis, like the November 2012 Indianapolis south side explosion.

Heidi West says that's what makes the issue a tough one. 

"It's a hard job what they do," she said. "I see it as kind of a perk."

Officers who live inside Marion County can opt out of the surcharge and use the cruiser to simply get to and from a roll call site at no additional cost.

The city will cap the number of officers using vehicles out of county to 200.  Right now the city has 211 officers living out of county.  IMPD will decide who gets take home car privileges based on who has lived out of county longest.

The city will check for fraud by auditing gas charges and vehicle mileage.  Anyone who violates their user agreement will be banned from the take home program for up to a year.