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Clearwater explores price tag of Police Department vs. Sheriff's Office

CLEARWATER — There used to be a Dunedin Police Department, just like there used to be police departments in Safety Harbor and Belleair Beach and Oldsmar.

Not anymore. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office patrols all that turf now. One by one, those cities jettisoned their police forces and contracted with the sheriff to save money.

Now Clearwater is the latest Pinellas city to ask the question: How much would it cost for the Sheriff's Office to police our streets?

Clearwater officials are approaching this subject with extreme reluctance. They have no intention of disbanding the Clearwater Police Department. They doubt the sheriff can save the city enough money to make such a drastic move worthwhile. They just hired a new police chief. In fact, they're only asking for a proposal from Sheriff Jim Coats in hopes of putting this issue behind them.

"I'm just so tired of hearing about this every year," said Vice Mayor Paul Gibson. "I would truly like to get this off the table and not have to deal with it again."

However, even if the city rejects the sheriff's offer this year, the issue may not go away permanently. Like other Florida cities, Clearwater is facing a long-term budget crunch due to declining tax revenues.

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With 400 employees, Clearwater's $37 million Police Department is the single biggest chunk of the city's budget.

The sheriff has previously floated the idea that he could save Clearwater $10 million a year by taking over law enforcement.

Clearwater leaders doubt that.

"The only realistic way the sheriff could reduce the cost of law enforcement in the city would be to cut the number of officers available on the street at any one time," former police Chief Sid Klein said before retiring last month. "It costs the Sheriff's Office basically the same amount of money to put a deputy in a cruiser, compared to a municipal police officer in the same car."

City Council members have repeatedly said: If we just wanted to cut police service, we could do that ourselves.

Still, the sheriff is confident he can offer some real savings in his proposal, which will come in the next couple of weeks. "There are some redundancies to some degree between the two agencies," Coats said.

For instance, Clearwater has its own police dispatch center with 42 employees. But county sheriffs who take over law enforcement in a city will often consolidate dispatch centers, said Steve Casey of the Florida Sheriff's Association.

The Dunedin example

People in Dunedin thought they would never get rid of their Police Department either. Yet, that's what they did in 1995 after nine months of contentious debate that split the city.

It had seemed unlikely to happen, especially after 8,000 Dunedin police supporters signed petitions. But finally, after nearly 100 years on the beat, the Dunedin Police Department was abolished by a City Commission vote of 3-2.

Dunedin was the last sizeable Pinellas city to make the switch. Madeira Beach and Belleair Bluffs eliminated their police forces that same year. Belleair Beach did it in 2007.

Dunedin, with less than half of Clearwater's population, has estimated it saves $2 million a year by contracting with the sheriff. It just released a 63-page analysis of law enforcement in Dunedin in which a team of consultants said the city is getting "outstanding" service from the Sheriff's Office at a lower cost than operating a Police Department.

Large cities resist

If the sheriff had his way, all law enforcement in the county would be consolidated under his office's jurisdiction. Aside from cost savings, Coats touts his agency's training and record of responsiveness — not to mention a broad range of services, including an "air force" of planes and helicopters.

That's why the Sheriff's Office patrols not only unincorporated Pinellas County but also a dozen of its municipalities.

On the other side of the argument, many cities strongly believe that no one can serve their residents better than local police. All of Pinellas' biggest cities — St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Pinellas Park and Largo — have their own departments.

Any attempt to dismantle Clearwater's police force would likely be met with fierce resistance from many residents.

Also, Clearwater has its own consultants' study to point to.

Last year, consultants who examined its police force found that it was efficiently run and not too top-heavy with administrators. They concluded the city wouldn't save much by switching to the Sheriff's Office.

Clearwater's new police chief, Tony Holloway, summed it up: "An outside company said the department is very efficient and well-organized."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Clearwater explores price tag of Police Department vs. Sheriff's Office 03/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 27, 2010 4:32pm]

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