To protect, serve ... and sell?

Council debating sponsors for city vehicles

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   A program created in North Carolina following the 9-11 terrorist attacks to subsidize public safety vehicles through advertising has piqued the interest of Elizabethton government officials.
   However, the jury is still out on whether local police would cotton to the idea of pushing motor oil or pharmaceutical products on their squad cars.
   Government Acquisitions Co. of North Carolina was formed following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 when several North Carolina businessmen were contacted by local law enforcement to develop a program for corporate sponsorship of sponsor-themed government vehicles. The law enforcement agencies were facing funding problems for vehicles.
   "This is the option to go for small towns and cities that don't have large amounts of line items in their budgets," said Sam Shipley, Elizabethton's mayor pro tem, who advocates the program in lieu of woeful economic times facing the public and private sectors.
   The vehicle sponsorship program was hinted at during the city of Elizabethton 2004 fiscal year and was informally discussed by City Council members during the city's budget process. Under a contract discussed, the company would lease three police cruisers at $1 each to the city for a three-year period with the advertising banners. The cars would belong to the city at no additional cost at the end of the three years.
   "We are in the information gathering mode right now," Elizabethton City Councilman Richard Sammons said last week. "It is not something we can do immediately but it is something we can gather information on."
   Sammons said the initial perception of the program seemed tremendous, but he was aware of opposition to the program by police officials across the state and nation.
   The sponsors contract directly with Government Acquisitions - not the municipal government - to advertise. The company donates the fully-equipped vehicles to the government entities.
   Elizabethton police officers and Police Chief Roger Deal who spoke with the Star last week did not favor the idea of advertising on police vehicles. Deal feels sponsorships detract from a department's image. He also expressed concern that advertising might encompass brand name personal products such as condoms or female hygiene products.
   "I believe it lowers the image of a police officer as a profession," said Deal. "A police officer must project authority and command respect. Authority and respect are not the first things I would think of if a cop rolled up on a scene with the (McDonald's) golden arches on his vehicle.
   "That could be the public's perception."
   According to the company, the sponsor endorsement can be a municipal agency's choice. Options include recognition of the DARE Program or auto racing themes for racetrack cities or conservative themes (most common) that retain a vehicle's existing layout but add sponsor recognition to a vehicle. The company prohibits localized advertising competition or political advertising.
   The vehicle program bars sponsor advertising of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, firearms, gaming or any sponsors deemed "inappropriate". Shipley said he was aware of opposition from the police department but added that he did not think ads detracted from the professionalism or integrity of the department.
   "We need to check with other cities that do have to see the pros and cons," he said.
   Several police departments in Tennessee and North Carolina have entered into agreements with Government Acquisitions to pursue the program including the Unicoi County Sheriff's Department.
   Sheriff David Harris of Unicoi County said Monday his department had submitted an application with Government Acquisitions earlier this year in hopes of securing one new police vehicle with a corporate sponsor. The department had not been contacted since submitting their application.
   "We would still like to see it happen because it is a good deal," said Harris. "We are a lot like Elizabethton; we have to put the pennies together over here."
   Harris said his 26-vehicle fleet was showing some wear. The department received only one new vehicle - a used "program" car with 20,000 miles already - during the county's current budget cycle. He said a fast-food restaurant chain or a petroleum company were preferred advertisers the department hoped to provide sponsorship for their vehicle.
   Harris said some county officials were initially wary of the idea.
   "Some people said it was going to be like an advertisement on wheels," said Harris who also thinks advertising on police vehicles does not damage the integrity of law enforcement as long as the sponsor is reputable.
   "It is not going to be like a NASCAR car where there is stuff all over it," he said. "As the agency, you have the final say in what it looks like."
   Harris said the department received a new long-bed pickup truck purchased by Nuclear Fuel Services Inc. of Erwin as a corporate donation. The truck functions as a litter enforcement vehicle for the department and bears the NFS corporate logo.
   Only municipal government and their agencies are currently eligible for the Government Acquisitions program. The company is now developing a new sponsorship system to provide vehicles for nonprofit organizations such as volunteer fire departments and emergency medical services.
   David Nichols, deputy director of the Carter County EMS, has registered both the EMS and Carter County Volunteer Fire Department Association with Government Acquisitions to be first in line when the nonprofit agencies become eligible for the program.
   "We would certainly love to talk to them about it," said Nichols.
   Nichols said the county's volunteer fire departments bought seven fire engines under a lease purchase agreement after receiving an increase in funding from the county to $37,500 per department. The departments make the final lease payments between 2006 and 2007.
   The Carter County EMS purchased two new ambulances in 2002 and two crash trucks were lease purchased and they were 2002 models. Nichols said the EMS could be looking at new ambulances within the next two years depending on the durability of the fleet's older vehicles. The EMS fleet includes eight ambulances, three crash trucks, three SUVs, a command vehicle, a wheel-chair van and a mini-command vehicle. At least one of the EMS' four-wheel drive vehicles had significant age, Nichols said.
   "We have three ambulances over 200,000 miles," said Nichols. "About six years is about we can get out of an ambulance."
   In the Elizabethton Police Department's 2004-2005 budget proposal, Deal requested five new police cruisers at a cost of $101,500. With state funding stagnant and the economic outlook of the nation and region questionable at best, many cities and counties that face the reality of razor-thin municipal budgets and few new revenue streams must look toward new ways to fund public services. "I commend the council for looking at options to save the taxpayers' money," said Deal, "but where do we go with that in emergency services?"