CLEARWATER — This Thursday night, the City Council is poised to reject the Pinellas County sheriff's proposal to take over law enforcement in the city. But council members are ready to embrace some of the sheriff's cost-cutting ideas, and they'll be directing their police chief to pursue them.
With the likely rejection of the sheriff's plan, Clearwater still faces a whopping $7.6 million budget deficit. That means the city will likely close some libraries, slash hours for recreation centers, and weigh an assortment of other budget cuts and tax hikes this summer.
As for who will patrol Clearwater's streets, that decision comes down to dueling budget estimates.
Sheriff Jim Coats figures he would save the city $10.8 million a year if Clearwater disbands its Police Department and contracts with the Sheriff's Office instead.
But Police Chief Tony Holloway is telling a dramatically different story: He says switching to the Sheriff's Office would save Clearwater only $2.5 million in the first year.
That's one reason why City Council members are unlikely to make the switch at their public meeting Thursday. They're also worried about the prospect of not having total control over future law enforcement costs.
"I have always leaned toward keeping CPD (the Clearwater Police Department)," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "I think that is an important factor in our city."
On Monday at a council work session, Clearwater officials questioned Coats about how things would really work if the Sheriff's Office patrolled Clearwater. They asked how closely sheriff's deputies in the city would be supervised; how much Clearwater police officers would be paid if they became sheriff's deputies; and how a consolidated police dispatch center would operate.
Then Coats made a surprising announcement: He offered to name Clearwater's recently hired chief, Holloway, as a sheriff's captain overseeing Clearwater.
Coats says it would cost the Sheriff's Office about $26.6 million a year to keep the same number of patrol officers and detectives in Clearwater. That's $10.8 million less than the Clearwater Police Department's $37.4 million budget.
Holloway went through the sheriff's plan point-by-point for the City Council on Monday. For various reasons, he concluded the plan would actually cost nearly $28.7 million. That's still a sizable $8.7 million a year less than Clearwater's police budget.
But Holloway also predicted there would be a one-time cost of $6.1 million to shut down the Police Department and pay out money for layoffs, retirements, unused vacation time, debt on police cars, and leases on police computers. He figures the sheriff's plan would eliminate 55 employees. This up-front cost would knock the savings down to about $2.54 million in Year 1, Holloway said.
City Council members questioned the sheriff about his plan to reduce the number of police supervisors in Clearwater from nearly 50 to about 28.
"We could accomplish the same thing by simply reducing the command staff we have to a level that would be commensurate with what you are proposing," Councilman Paul Gibson told the sheriff. "It looks to me like this is a much lower service level."
Coats said some of those supervisory positions, such as a K-9 supervisor, are duplicated at the Sheriff's Office.
"I would pledge to you — and I think our history shows — that the level of service that we would provide to the city of Clearwater … is equal to or greater than you currently have," the sheriff said.
While disbanding the Police Department is unlikely, Clearwater officials are intrigued by Coats' idea of merging the sheriff's communications center with Clearwater's police dispatch center, which employs 44 people. Clearwater also will look into the possibility of merging its dispatch center with Largo's.
"The comm center issue bears more exploration," said City Manager Bill Horne.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.