Colo. sheriff evaluating 'take-home' vehicles for deputies

The sheriff's office was not demonstrated whether the $17M take-home vehicle program benefits taxpayers

By Kassondra Cloos
The Gazette

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — In the two years since the $17 million annual fund of 1A money was approved by voters, more than $2 million was spent buying cars for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and outfitting them to fit deputies' needs.

Since then, the Sheriff's Office has not demonstrated whether its take-home vehicle program benefits taxpayers, according to a third-party report released in mid-August, and Sheriff Bill Elder has been weighing its benefits and costs.

The take-home car program was one of many issues addressed in an assessment of the Sheriff's Office written by KRW Associates, LLC. Every deputy on patrol has been assigned a vehicle to take home, and the report recommended that the Sheriff's Office take a close look at the program.

"What was the justification used for spending all that money?" Elder asked this month. A lot of the cars weren't outfitted with computers, he said, and the department has more cars than patrol officers.

El Paso County has not bought cars for the Sheriff's Office this year.

Elder said he has been concerned about the program for more than a year, and the KRW report highlighted his concerns.

"With the passage of 1A, the assignment of take-home vehicles was significantly expanded without a clear justification for the operational necessity, mission, purpose or demonstration of taxpayer benefit," the report states. "A detailed assessment of this practice should be conducted to evaluate the 'Benefit vs. Operational value/necessity."

Records indicating exactly how much was spent on vehicles before and after the advent of 1A funds - earmarked for public safety needs - were not available. Elder's office has been working to compile such data, but was not able to provide documentation of the progression of changes under former Sheriff Terry Maketa.

Elder said he is evaluating whether having single cars assigned to each patrol deputy saves the county money in gas and maintenance, as such vehicles aren't used as heavily as cars that barely get a chance to rest between shift changes, essentially being driven non-stop.

"It doesn't take long to wear a car out," Elder said.

The Sheriff's Office, like the Colorado Springs Police Department, is required by law to pay employees for the time they take putting on and taking off their uniforms at work, which amounts to half an hour each day. Deputies with take-home cars get dressed at home, saving the county that half hour.

The Sheriff's Office is also looking into purchasing body-worn cameras for its deputies, and depending on which model and software they choose, deputies could have to return to the office to upload video footage on a daily basis, regardless of whether they're taking the cars home.

The future of the program comes down to money. Elder considers himself to be fiscally conservative, and he often says that he wants to be a good steward of taxpayer money.

If the Sheriff's Office is wasting taxpayer money and can't show a benefit, then something has to change, he said.

But having Sheriff's Office vehicles parked in neighborhoods throughout the county overnight offers a priceless element: safety.

Are officers able to respond faster when they don't need to first drive to the office to pick up a car? Is more crime prevented when those cars are constants in their neighborhoods? Do residents feel safer seeing the vehicles in their neighborhoods?

Those factors are being evaluated, too, and Elder said he wants to hear residents' opinions about the program.

Patrol deputies are aware that Elder is considering changes to the program, and he said Friday that there will be some adjustments.

He plans to bring up the topic this week at a conference in Pueblo for Colorado county sheriffs to get input from other agencies. He also said he plans to tell his staff about whatever changes may be made before he speaks publicly about them.

"I'd love to say, 'It's easy. We'll just do this," Elder said. "But I don't want to make a snap decision."

Copyright 2015 The Gazette

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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