Friday, April 4, 2008 | At least four upper-level administrators at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, including Deputy Sheriff Bill Gore, currently drive top-of-the-range Dodge Chargers, cars that cost San Diego taxpayers between $32,615 and $35,459 apiece.

The Chargers are equipped with powerful V-8 “Hemi” engines and feature leather seats. They’re part of a fleet of vehicles the Sheriff’s Department provides for mid- and upper- level managers from the sheriff himself to the department’s information technology chief information officer. The current fleet cost taxpayers almost $780,000.

At a time when many local law enforcement agencies are cutting back on costs across the board, good government advocates questioned the provision of take-home cars to administrators, who are not on patrol or working on investigations, and the purchase of expensive, non fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Why do those employees need county owned-cars, and why such expensive cars?” said Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, and a former attorney for the state Fair Political Practices Commission. “It comes down to the appropriate use of taxpayer money at a time of belt-tightening.”

All Sheriff’s Department vehicles, including those driven by office workers and lawyers, are also fitted with license plates known in law enforcement circles as “undercover plates,” rather than the standard California Exempt plates, leaving them indistinguishable from non-government vehicles. That policy is defended by Gore, but California law provides for the use of unmarked plates only by officers involved with investigations. The department’s policy is also at odds with other local California law enforcement agencies.

Gore said the Sheriff’s Department purchased the $32,000-plus Dodge Chargers for the managers as part of a deal that included buying five Chargers for the department’s patrol fleet. He said the Chargers were purchased so he and some of his managers could try out the vehicles to see if they would make good patrol cars.

They’ve since decided that the cars are not ideally suited for patrol use.

The V-8 version of the Charger retails at more than $10,000 more than the standard V-6 model. Gore said the decision to buy the more powerful, better-equipped model was up to Sheriff Bill Kolender.

“We don’t get the cheapest cars we can get, that’s a decision made by the sheriff. That’s not the way he operates — that’s not the way he treats his senior management,” Gore said.

The practice of providing take-home vehicles to mid- and upper-level administrators at the Sheriff’s Department has irked managers in other county departments for decades. With the exception of the District Attorney’s Office, the county only provides vehicles or a vehicle allowance to department heads.

The Sheriff’s Department provides a range of different vehicles for its administrative staff, Gore said. Most employees drive Ford Five Hundreds, which cost the department about $24,500. Gore said some employees — those who are on-call or who work in the field — can take their cars home and drive them to and from work, but that the extent to which the cars can be used outside of strictly driving to official engagements depends on each position.

The Sheriff’s Department’s policy of providing vehicles to administrators and managers also goes beyond what is offered at other county departments and has been a bone of contention at the county for decades. In other county departments, take-home vehicles or car allowances are rare and are usually only offered to department heads.

Gore said the Sheriff’s Department has concluded that it’s more cost-effective to provide employees with cars than to pay staff mileage rates. That’s something the Sheriff’s Department will be re-assessing this year, he said.

But Stern scoffed at the idea that providing take-home cars is cheaper for taxpayers.

“I can’t believe that’s the case. This is a perk, it’s a way to recruit people,” Stern said. “If you’re going to give them a car, give them a Prius, not a gas-guzzling $35,000 car.”

A 2007 Dodge Charger gets an average of 15 miles per gallon, according to a government fuel economy website. A 2007 Prius gets 46 mpg, and a 2007 Ford Taurus, the workhorse of many law enforcement agencies, gets 20 mpg.

Officials at other sheriff’s departments and police departments around the state expressed amusement and sometimes shock when told about the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s new Dodge Chargers.

“I think that’s a ridiculous car for law enforcement officers,” said Ugo “Butch” Arnoldi, a senior lieutenant at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department. “I don’t think that would be the best vehicle for an administrator, let me put it that way.”

Arnoldi, who has been a law enforcement officer for 35 years, said there are other vehicles, like the Ford Crown Victoria, which are far more fuel-efficient and much better value for law enforcement use.

All the sheriff’s vehicles also feature the undercover plates. Because government agencies do not pay registration fees on their vehicles, they are normally required to fit those vehicles with licenses that read “California Exempt.”

The exempt plates are a signal to taxpayers that the vehicle is paid for out of tax dollars, said David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers’ Association. The plates allow the public to ensure the vehicles are being used in a suitable way, he said, that government employees aren’t speeding at 100 miles per hour or using their vehicles to travel to Disneyland on the weekend.

“It’s a more efficient and cheaper way than painting every car with a government insignia of letting people know how their tax dollars are being spent,” Kline said.

A section of the California Vehicle Code makes an exception for law enforcement vehicles “assigned to persons responsible for investigating actual or suspected violations of the law.” For those vehicles, the DMV will provide license plates that look just like normal plates, so law enforcement officers retain their anonymity out in the field. Those are the plates that the San Diego Sheriff’s Department puts on all its vehicles.

Gore said each vehicle the Sheriff’s Department buys is passed around the department from detectives to administrators, to lawyers to undercover cops. He said because the department doesn’t know who might be driving the vehicles at any given time, it has a policy of providing all the cars with the undercover plates. That’s standard at most California law enforcement agencies, he said.

But that’s not the case at the San Diego Police Department, the Los Angeles Police Department, the San Francisco Police Department or the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, among others. Officials at all these agencies said the undercover plates are only issued to police officers who need to operate incognito, including undercover officers or wardens at county jails who do not want their identity to be known by inmates who might see them park their car.

“It’s standard operating procedure, when a car comes in for a chief, a captain or a lieutenant, unless they’re in an undercover assignment, they don’t get undercover plates,” said John Alley, deputy director of the San Diego Police Department’s Fleet Services Division.

Stern said there are other reasons why the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t want its vehicles to have California Exempt license plates that distinguish them as taxpayer-bought vehicles.

“If they’re taking the car up to Yosemite, people aren’t looking at the car saying ‘Hey, why’s that car in Yosemite?’ ” Stern said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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