CLEARWATER — After an exhaustive study of the Clearwater Police Department, the city is considering eliminating a Clearwater Beach community policing team to save money.
That's the recommendation of consultants who were hired to assess Clearwater's police force and how efficiently it operates. They say the four-officer BeachWalk team is expendable because Clearwater Beach can be adequately patrolled by other police officers who are assigned to that district.
If the team is phased out, the city would save nearly $312,000 in salaries and benefits. But city leaders aren't sure they're willing to give up such a visible police presence in Clearwater's main tourist area.
They think the community officers are a deterrent against crime. They had the same reaction to a recommendation that Clearwater cut the number of bicycle officers in downtown and the East Gateway district from seven to four, which would save more than $220,000.
"With the bike team downtown and BeachWalk, we want to avoid problems. We're very much into the ounce-of-prevention side of things," said Mayor Frank Hibbard.
Still, city officials will have to make some unpopular decisions this year.
City Manager Bill Horne noted that police officers are needed at the beach to deal with problems like underage drinking, panhandling around Pier 60 and petty crimes like iPods stolen from beach blankets.
But Horne must cut $7 million to $13 million from next year's budget and is looking for ways to trim costs. He's asking City Council members if they're willing to part ways with the BeachWalk squad. They'll discuss it at their meeting Thursday night.
Police Chief Sid Klein argued to keep the BeachWalk team.
"We've never had a better spring break than the one we just went through," he said. "They're getting results out there."
Matrix Consulting Group, the firm that analyzed the Police Department, said the beach community officers and downtown bike officers are doing their jobs, but their roles are less crucial than other things that Clearwater's police force does.
"You're getting effective law enforcement out of these units," said consultant Travis Miller. "But the question is, if you had to go find half a million dollars in savings in this department, where would you go?"
Their other findings include:
• The Police Department is efficiently run. There is little waste, and it is not too top-heavy with administrators.
• Clearwater wouldn't save much money if it had the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office take over law enforcement in the city. This question comes up from time to time.
• The city could save $660,000 by changing officers' work schedules from four 10-hour shifts to five eight-hour shifts.
Although the police chief made a case for keeping the BeachWalk officers, Horne responded that every top official in the city government could make a case for keeping all of their programs and employees.
"We have a limited amount of money, and we have to make the decision about how to allocate that money," said City Council member John Doran. "In a perfect world, we would continue the BeachWalk team. But we have to make a policy decision that's going to be very difficult."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.