Salt Lake City's 6-year-old take-home police car program has benefited the city by reducing operational costs and increasing law enforcement visibility, but the advantages come at a price, says a City Council audit released Tuesday.

The cost comes primarily from paying the expenses of the officers' commuting from homes as far away as Utah, Davis and Summit counties. Officers once were required to reimburse the city for commuting costs but no longer are."At a minimum, it is costing the (city) approximately $123,000 to pay for commuting miles," the audit says.

The program, begun in 1982, provides 269 Salt Lake police officers with marked and unmarked police cars they take home at the end of each shift, some commuting at taxpayers' expense into neighboring counties, the audit says.

Eligible officers can use the vehicles within city limits during off-duty hours with no restrictions, to increase visibility, while officers living out of the city limits could use the vehicles for commuting and official business.

The car take-home policy was designed to save maintenance costs because officers are expected to personally care for their vehicles, promote security via quicker response times and deter crime through higher police visibility.

The program has improved maintenance of vehicles and increased police availability, according to the audit, conducted by council auditor Lee King. "These successes, however, are achieved at a certain price," the audit says.

When the program started, officers living in the city paid $10 monthly for use of cars. Those living outside the city paid $20. But in 1986 the requirement was discontinued after an agreement between then-Police Chief E.L. Willoughby and Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis.

DePaulis said Wednesday that discontinuation of the reimbursement plan was associated with the collective bargaining process; the audit says police officers believe reimbursement was ended in lieu of a 1986 pay raise.

"If the reimbursement fees were reinstituted," the audit says, "commuting costs could be reduced by almost one-half, from $123,00 to $67,000."

Although part of the original intent of the program was to help officers make more off-duty responses, average off-duty activity is a little more than one response to an incident per week, the audit said.

"Far too many officers have not participated in the spirit of the program," the audit said.

The program has, however, increased vehicle life from 2.5 to 6 years because of increased maintenance, and the program has decreased operational cost per mile, the audit says. The audit also recommended the program be retained "as an integral part of the Police Department's crime deterrent program."

In a Police Department response to the audit, Chief Michael P. Chabries says, "We must look beyond the commuting costs . . . in justifying the costs." The program has greatly increased police availability in the city, Chabries said, citing 1,650 police response provided for via the program in fall 1988.

Responding to recommendations in the audit that off-duty officers be required to make more off-duty responses, Chabries said requiring officers to make such responses could violate federal labor law.

Chabries said scrutiny of the program is "extremely disconcerting" for police officers, a sentiment reflected in survey of officers conducted for the audit that found morale detrimentally affected by criticism of the program.

The City Council will review the audit findings in its Committee of the Whole meeting Jan. 5.