Abilene City Council urged to ‘set a policy’ on limiting city vehicle use outside of town

ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) — During the 2024 City Council Retreat, attendees discussed various topics, including the decades-old conversation of reducing the use of city vehicles outside city limits. However, no official action has been taken yet.

The City of Abilene assigns take-home vehicles to employees in mission-critical positions. These employees are required to take a city-owned vehicle home to shorten response time if they are called to service after hours.

Throughout the years, the City Council has given guidance on how to best do this, and City Manager Robert Hanna is requesting a formal council policy for the use of take-home vehicles.

“We’ve had rings of five miles and then 10 miles. The problem with that is when you get an employee who lives six miles out, everybody is like, what do we do? He is outside the ring, but he needs the vehicle. It is a difficult and unwieldy thing. Counsel has never set a hard-fast policy on this. I’m asking you all to make my job easy and tell me what you want. Set a policy,” Hannah said during the 2024 City Council Retreat.

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Currently, the city owns 149 take-home vehicles, divided into two classes: assigned to specific employees and multi-use.

94 vehicles are assigned to specific employees, while 55 are for general use. Only five of the general-use vehicles leave the city limits, while 30 of the assigned vehicles consistently travel outside the city limits.

Hanna stated that the City Council should limit vehicles from leaving city limits.

“We minimize the number of vehicles that have to go outside the city limits, but the city manager has the discretion to make assignments for employees to take a vehicle outside city limits on a take-home standpoint where the needs justify the demand,” Hanna said. “For example, this is why APD has so many take-home vehicles. We’ve got a S.W.A.T. response for a multicounty radius. You have the bomb squad – they get funding through state and federal dollars because they are responding to a multicounty radius. The concept is that if you get a call for the bomb squad, not all of them need to go back to PD, get in the bomb truck, and go. They can start heading towards the response call where they need to be going. Someone will meet them — the same thing with the S.W.A.T. team.”

Hanna is seeking clear direction from the city council as to what they want to see.

“One of the things I’ve heard consistently in my nine years is they do not like seeing patrol Tahoes or water trucks or whatever driving to Ovalo, and I can understand that,” Hanna said.

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Place 5 Councilman Kyle McAlister agreed with Hanna, though he is unsure how to address it at this time.

“I am with you. I scratch my head when I’m in an outlying community and see one of our vehicles there. It doesn’t make sense to me. I think as long as we take care of the things that are required, the bomb squad, the S.W.A.T. team, or whatever, I don’t want us to do things just because it is convenient; it makes it easier,” McAlister said. “These are tax dollars we are dealing with. This is wear and tear on these vehicles and gasoline costs. All that stuff is eventually passed on to the taxpayer. I think a good standard policy that gives you definite lanes and definite guidelines is very important for us… I don’t know that I have a specific because there are so many moving pieces to that. I think it is important we figure out a way to address this.”

Place 1 Councilman Shane Price questioned the frequency of emergency responses outside the city limits and how the use of city vehicles to commute each day affects their wear and tear.

“I understand the need for the response, but out of a quarter, how many emergency responses are there outside of the city limits by the bomb squad? Any other that would need water —anything that has to go and make a response versus the daily wear and tear that is added to the vehicle, reducing its life and requiring replacement sooner. That has just been the hurdle that I’ve had a difficult time overcoming is opening this up to say, well, let’s just let people do it because it’s convenient,” Price said.

Hanna has proposed a policy for the council to take a look at.

“When I drafted this, it seemed to me that that is the heart of the issue. And so there are two things. The first statement says take-home vehicles should only be assigned to further expedite response to a city emergency. Two, it is the express intent of the city council to restrict the number of take-home vehicles assigned to personnel that live outside the corporate limits of the city to as few vehicles as possible to meet the public safety needs of the city. Those two are key components of the policy statement,” said Hanna. “In conversations with the chief, he has said absolutely we will have a mechanism whereby if you are a patrol officer and you have your own Tahoe assigned to you, and you live in Hamlin or whatever, you are not driving to Hamlin every night. You have to stop at a designated location within the city limits. You can exchange your personal vehicle and go, or you can leave your personal vehicle at the station. It is not leaving the city limits,” Hanna shared.

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Officers who live within city limits may take the Tahoe home, which, according to Hanna, provides a number of benefits, such as letting the community see the police presence in the neighborhood and incentivizing officers to live within the city limits.

Place 4 Councilman Brian Yates shared another factor: seeing exactly which vehicles need to respond quickly.

“So, police officers, that makes sense. They need their vehicle to be able to do their job. If all you are trying to do is get a body to a place, and then somebody else is bringing the gear for the bomb squad or something like that, you don’t need that vehicle at the location; You need the person,” Yates said. “Has there been any look at mileage instead of a take-home vehicle? Compensate the individual for using their personal vehicle to reach the location. Just pay them the standard government mileage, and you offset that mileage cost with a reduced number of vehicles or maybe less wear and tear on the existing vehicles, something that like.”

Place 2 Councilman Lynn Beard, who has spent time on the bomb squad and a significant amount of time responding to child abuse and homicide cases after hours, brought an insider’s perspective.

“Time is of the essence in those scenarios. The detectives who work in those cases typically carry a lot of gear in their trunks, as opposed to driving to the station, picking up a bunch of stuff, and going. I’ve been the guy standing in the parking lot looking at my watch, waiting for personnel to arrive at a scene so we can get to work. Unnecessary delays cause problems. I think there are two criteria you have to look at when you are evaluating a take-home car policy,” Beard shared. “One, not every response needs to be an emergency. It is just not. Not every division responds to emergencies. They’re very different dynamics from division to division. In terms of the time being of the essence to get to the scene, the bomb squad, for example, really drives straight to the same. They go to the station where all their equipment is except for one pickup carrying a bunch of things. The S.W.A.T. team has to respond from wherever they live, right to the scene, wherever it is within 21 counties of Abilene. CID is the same way. Wherever they live, they don’t go to the station and pick up a bunch of stuff; they go straight to the scene.”

Beard mentioned a federal evaluation from each department head in the city to recommend who needs a take-home vehicle and justify the need. He also proposed creating a blanket city boundary.

“You have to take into account the mission-critical nature of that person to be able to leave from their house and drive to the scene. How far away from the city limits are we willing to allow that to be?” Beard shared. “We went through a time when we had an officer who lived in Sweetwater and was driving from 15 to 20 years ago, which is not reasonable. You can’t live 45 miles from Abilene and respond. It takes you an hour to get here; you are not responding in an emergency nature anyway. We had a 25-mile boundary at one time. Is it from the city limits or the center of town? We had those discussions. So, firming those up from a policy perspective, are we going to use city hall as the marking point or use the city limit as the marking point?”

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In response, Hanna shared that department heads have identified positions that need or do not need a vehicle. He added that the boundary lines could also raise some questions that need to be addressed.

“The challenge is with our current policy, it is a circle. And you get somebody who lives just outside the circle, but there is an exigent need for them to have that vehicle. A legitimate need. It is a S.W.A.T. officer. Are we really going to say, ‘I’m sorry you cannot drive that vehicle even though you live on the other side of the street from the boundary line?’ So, you are creating a false sense of direction when you do that. I’m telling you, I’m going to approve that even though it violates council policy because it is a common sense approach. It is not five miles out; it is literally up the street,” Hanna said. “The policy I’ve written as the first two statements and the third one is that no employee who resides outside these corporate limits of the city shall take a vehicle assigned for their permanent or temporary use without the express written permission of the city manager. Such permission shall be renewed annually.”

Another thing to be addressed is what will be considered city limits, as it was noted that the city has an unusual geographic shape.

Hanna added that he was not looking to approve the drafted policy at the meeting but asked from a conceptual standpoint to learn how best to move forward.

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