CLEARWATER — It's a question that comes up again and again: Could cash-strapped Clearwater save millions by closing its police department and paying the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to patrol the city instead?
Clearwater officials have serious doubts about this idea, but they've decided to find out the answer once and for all.
The city is asking the sheriff to submit a proposal detailing how much it would cost for the Sheriff's Office to police Clearwater's streets with the same number of officers that the Clearwater Police Department employs.
"I get asked this question all the time," said Sheriff Jim Coats, who lives in Clearwater. "Can the citizens of Clearwater realize a substantial savings by merging the city's police force with the Sheriff's Office? My comment is, there is a potential for savings."
The sheriff has previously said he thought he could save Clearwater $10 million a year. But he notes, "That was without benefit of a more detailed analysis." That number was also based on last year's budget figures.
Coats isn't sure yet what kind of savings his formal proposal will outline.
Clearwater City Council members aren't eager to go down this road. They don't want to scrap the city's police force. They seriously doubt that Clearwater would save any money with the sheriff without cutting the level of police service.
With the city facing a $9 million budget shortfall this year, the council agreed last week to request this proposal from the sheriff. But several council members said they're only doing this in hopes of putting the issue to bed.
"The outsourcing of police just comes up over and over, and it gives me a headache," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. "There's this constant chiming from all sides of us that there's millions to be saved, and I just don't believe it."
"I hate that we revisit this every year," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "I know that we can't save $10 million unless you just get rid of patrol."
"Our shortfall is $9 million. Somebody's going to ask us: Well, the sheriff said he can save us $10 million," said council member George Cretekos. "I think we need to have an answer as to where the sheriff is wrong, so that we can explain to our residents that those figures are incorrect."
Sheriff Coats said the cities that contract with his agency are satisfied with the service they receive.
Of Pinellas County's two dozen cities, 12 contract with the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement, including Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Oldsmar and most of the beach towns.
Meanwhile, most of the bigger cities like St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Largo, Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs maintain their own police forces.
Coats said Tuesday that his proposal for Clearwater should be finished within two or three weeks.
"There are some redundancies to some degree between the two agencies. There are some potential savings," the sheriff said. "We're just trying to thoroughly vet this so we have numbers we can support.
"We'll just put it all on the table. It'll be what it is."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.