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Clearwater considers switching law enforcement to Sheriff's Office

Fifteen years ago, Dunedin asked the same question Clearwater is asking now — should we keep our own police department or hire the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to save money? Dunedin's leaders wrestled with this decision for a traumatic nine months while Police Department supporters booed and hissed at city meetings, signed petitions by the thousands, and picketed City Hall to the salutes of passing car horns. Dunedin was the last mid-sized city in Pinellas County to switch to the Sheriff's Office. Today, Dunedin officials look back and say it was the right call. They say they're saving millions, and they're satisfied with the law enforcement their city gets.

This week, Clearwater officials begin pondering the same issue. Does Dunedin's experience offer any lessons for Clearwater, which is nearly three times as big? It depends on whom you ask.

Even people who fought fiercely to save the Dunedin Police Department back in 1995 have mixed feelings about how things have turned out.

"I don't think there's the same feeling as having your hometown Police Department," said Debbie Guenther, who ran for city office on a platform of bringing back Dunedin's police. "But personally, I've had no issues at all with the sheriff."

"It didn't work. They lied to us. It's been thinning out ever since," said Mara Hendrix, who wanted to keep the Dunedin police and now sees the sheriff cutting millions from his budget.

But she also says her quiet neighborhood doesn't seem less safe since the sheriff took over.

"Clearwater has more trouble than Dunedin. We're all old here," the 76-year-old joked. "Old people don't commit crimes."

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Dunedin signs a contract with the Sheriff's Office every year, paying nearly $4 million for its own personal police force of 32 deputies, five sergeants, two detectives and a radio operator. A sheriff's captain functions as Dunedin's de facto police chief.

Sheriff Jim Coats is offering the same kind of setup for Clearwater, only on a bigger scale.

Clearwater residents appear to be mostly opposed to the idea. Clearwater's City Council will hear from the sheriff and the city's police chief at a work session Monday before they tackle the issue at a public meeting Thursday night.

Council members are extremely reluctant to disband the Clearwater Police Department, and it would be surprising if they did. But if they don't, they'll have to find other ways to cut $8 million from the city budget. The alternatives — like closing the East Branch Library to save $660,000 a year — pale in comparison to the $10.8 million in savings that the sheriff is offering.

However, Clearwater Police Chief Tony Holloway is prepared to argue on Monday that switching to the Sheriff's Office would only save $2.5 million in the first year, mainly because it would cost $6 million to shut down the Police Department.

"We need to look at this from every angle," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "Not only the law enforcement side, but pension issues, health insurance, and analysis from other cities that have done it."

Dunedin's analysis makes a case for the sheriff.

Dunedin estimates it saves at least $2 million a year by contracting with the sheriff. Consultants who recently analyzed law enforcement in Dunedin concluded that the city is getting outstanding service from the Sheriff's Office at a lower cost than operating its own department.

"I feel just as safe with the Sheriff's Office," said Dunedin City Commissioner David Carson. "I would tell the citizens of Clearwater that the sheriff will do a good job if they choose to go in that direction."

Clearwater officials say it's not that simple. City Manager Bill Horne rejects comparisons between Clearwater's current challenges and Dunedin's problems in 1995.

"That was so long ago. Everybody tells me that it's just night and day between what Dunedin was doing then and where we are now," Horne said. "The experience in today's urban center is different than when Dunedin made the switch."

Dunedin has a population of about 37,000. Clearwater has about 108,000 residents, and some of its districts — Clearwater Beach, North Greenwood, Countryside — have noticeably different issues and require different policing strategies.

The sheriff would keep the same number of patrol officers and detectives in Clearwater — about 200 in all — but he would eliminate some supervisors and office workers whose jobs are duplicated at the Sheriff's Office.

Clearwater has 48 police supervisors, and the sheriff would keep 28 of those positions.

Horne is prepared to argue that this would be a cut in the level of service.

"He clearly is going to have a smaller work force," the city manager said. "The most senior law enforcement official in the city would not be a chief of police. It would be a sheriff's captain."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater considers switching law enforcement to Sheriff's Office 05/15/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 15, 2010 3:32pm]

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