ST. PETE BEACH — After more than an hour of heated debate and insistence that they did not want to disband the police department, city commissioners are going to consider doing just that.
The commission directed City Manager Mike Bonfield to ask Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to draft a cost proposal for taking over law enforcement in the city.
"The sheriff has one message —- don't get me involved in any of your politics about contracting (with him) or keeping your police department," Bonfield said, describing a meeting he had earlier that day with Gualtieri.
The sheriff said he is cautiously willing to provide a proposal, Bonfield said.
Mayor Steve McFarlin strongly opposed the move, but was overridden by the rest of the commission.
"Suggesting that we put our police department out to bid is alarming to me," McFarlin said.
"Speaking as vice mayor, if I were in your position with four against one, I would call it,'' Commissioner Bev Garnett told McFarlin. "Let's get the information (from the sheriff) and move forward."
"As mayor of this city I don't think it is wise," McFarlin shot back.
All of the commissioners were quick to insist they personally did not want to close the police department, but that it was their responsibility to look at every option in saving taxpayer money.
"We are not (advocating closing the police department). We are just asking for information," said Commissioner Marvin Shavlan, adding that to do otherwise was "sticking our heads in the sand."
McFarlin insisted the discussion was "destroying the morale of our police department" and potentially "dividing the community."
Commissioner Jim Parent stressed that his proposal was meant as a way for the commission to put all city operations "under the microscope" to determine where savings could be achieved amid a "very real budget problem."
The commission can't disband the police department on its own. It is included in the city charter and would require a citywide voter referendum.
Parent's proposal was made two weeks ago during the commission's first budget workshop.
That was when the commission learned the city is faces a $1.25 million deficit next year, largely created by escalating pension costs for police, fire and other employees.
"We would have to cut a lot of people to make any significant dent (in the budget deficit),'' Parent said then. "You are talking about some significant changes in services."
Another option is to raise property taxes, a prospect none of the commissioners is happy with.
"If we end up going the tax route, which I hate, that's a bad option, too," said Parent.
Garnett stressed Tuesday that St. Pete Beach has the lowest property tax rate in the county for a "full-service" municipality that operates both a police and fire department.
Shavlan said he did not want to disband the department but wants to "understand what kind of a premium" the city pays for that service.
"We need to know what we are buying," agreed newly elected Commissioner Lorraine Huhn.
"The residents are already asking. The pot has been stirred," Garnett said. "And one question that some are asking is if we do get rid of the police department and then later decide we made a mistake, how much will it cost to get it back?"
Bonfield said he would get numbers from the sheriff, and if the commission still wanted to pursue closing the police department, the sheriff could hold community meetings.
"At some point you will have to make a decision if you think it should go on a public referendum or not," Bonfield said.