High gas prices impact city police budget

Published 10:05 am Friday, June 6, 2008

With the price of gas rising, the Albert Lea Police Department is looking to lower the number of miles they drive because of increased operating costs.

Police Chief Dwaine Winkels said the department discussed the rise in gas prices about a year ago, but the prices soon stabilized. This year the prices haven’t stabilized. Winkels said transportation costs take up 11 percent of the department’s budget, but he will have to find ways to make room to adjust the budget to cope with rising fuel prices.

According to Finance Director Rhonda Moen, the prices of running squad cars increased from 60 cents per mile to 65. Winkels said such an increase could mean having to find room for nearly $10,000 in the budget.

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“This is the first time we’ve felt the need to have an immediate adjustment due to gas prices,” Moen said. The Police Department “drives a lot of miles in a year, and that 5 cent increase is going to have an affect on the budget.”

According to Moen, Albert Lea’s central garage fund owns the vehicles and the different city departments in essence rent the vehicles from them. Moen’s department determines the price departments pay for the vehicles.

These prices cover things such as the purchase price of the vehicles, maintenance costs and fuel costs.

The Police Department is charged a per-mile rate, a rate that is set once year and takes effect in January with the new yearly budgets.

However, because of the rising price of gas, Moen had to adjust the rate in the middle of a year, which she said was the first time this has happened during her nearly 15 years of experience in Albert Lea.

“I sat down and sent a message to all the departments that because of the rise of fuel prices — and it’s basically been about a 35 percent increase in the last year — we were immediately going to have an increase in the rates they’re all paying for their vehicles,” Moen said.

Such increases mean the Police Department is looking for ways to decrease their driving time, which is something Winkels said their philosophy of community policing is accomplishing by getting officers out of the car to talk to citizens.

“The community policing we’re doing has reduced the amount of driving time we do,” Winkels said. “That’s the intent of community policing, (it) is getting the officers out of the cars and having them meet with people as opposed to driving up and down the street. The policing of the ’70s and ’80s where officers simply drove all over, we’re trying to get away from that now anyway. So hopefully our mileage will decrease.”

Recently Winkels received a document suggesting 30 possible methods for reducing fuel consumption from the State Association of Chiefs of Police. While some of these methods are already in place, the Police Department’s transition team will meet to discuss further steps.

One possible step would be switching to hybrid vehicles, which have one key problem: size. The community service officers currently use a Ford Escape Hybrid, but, according to Winkels, the front passenger seat had to be removed for equipment, making it essentially a one-man car.

“I’ve been waiting locally for hybrid squad cars,” Winkels said. “We need room in our cars; it’s not the motor we’re looking at. We have to put a cage in there. We have to be able to put people in and out of them. And then you also need to have all your equipment in there. … They’re just not making a larger vehicle.”

Smaller squad cars would likely mean removing the passenger seat for equipment, which would eliminate another possible step to reduce miles: doubling up officers in one squad car, something the police department used to do that has both pros and cons.

“You double them up, you do lose a little bit of efficiency,” Winkels said. “When one officer is working his sub district, then the other officer has to go along. … But on the evening shifts most of your calls tend to be more risky in nature, more dangerous. So doubling up is not a bad thing.”

Along with the possibility of doubling up, officers already work 10-hour shifts instead of eight to reduce driving to and from work, according to Winkels. Officers are also required to park more and not idle vehicles, except in the winter months. Bike patrols will begin again in the summer months.

Winkels said they will look at how many miles an officer drives on a given shift and then ask them to reduce them. And they may also look into other possibilities like limiting the number of officers responding to calls for backup and restricting training opportunities.

All these changes are occurring because of a jump in gas prices that Winkels said is different than previous jumps because paying for gas is beginning to take up a significant chunk of money for most people, something that may also affect the kind of crimes they respond to.

“We’ll start to see it affecting (people’s) budgets,” Winkels said. He said the department is looking at an increase in illegal gas drive-offs and anticipates more.

Winkels said the high gas prices have not yet hurt how officers do their jobs, but the use of gas is definitely a part of their conscious thought process like never before.

“Fuel and transportation wasn’t a big issue, but now it will come into play more and more,” Winkels said. “It’s just like in our personal lives when you plan what you are going to do for the weekend, you think about what you’re spending on fuel. That’s what we have to start looking at.”