CLEARWATER — Despite the temptation of millions of dollars in savings, the City Council has decided to keep the Clearwater Police Department and not to hire the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
A pro-police crowd packed the council chambers at City Hall until the decision came late Thursday night. More than two dozen Clearwater residents pleaded with officials to stick with the city's police force, with only one speaker arguing in favor of switching to the Sheriff's Office to save money.
However, the city is still facing a budget crisis this summer. Since council members turned down Sheriff Jim Coats' money-saving offer, they're putting pressure on Police Chief Tony Holloway and City Manager Bill Horne to make significant cuts to the Police Department's $37.4 million budget.
"I think we're a city of such a size that we need our own police department," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. But later he added, "Clearly things are not going to be status quo."
The cuts might mean making do with fewer police supervisors and office staffers. Or teaming up with another local law enforcement agency and merging the dispatch centers that take emergency calls.
During the last few years of job cuts, Clearwater has mostly left its Police Department intact, choosing to lay off city employees elsewhere. But officials say the financial situation is so dire that they can no longer let the city's biggest department go untouched.
"I would rather turn CPD into a leaner operation" than contract with the Sheriff's Office, said Councilman Paul Gibson.
For his part, the police chief was less than enthused about cutting his budget.
"What are you willing to give up?" Holloway asked the council. "What cases are we not going to investigate?
The sheriff offered a tempting deal, pledging to keep the same number of patrol officers and detectives in Clearwater. And the police chief's own analysis concluded that the sheriff's plan would cost the city only $28.7 million a year — $8.7 million less than the Police Department's current annual budget.
So why not take the deal? Council members saved the Police Department for a number of reasons:
• They think Clearwater should have total control over how the department is run. With the sheriff in charge of law enforcement, city officials would have less control.
• They were spooked by the permanence of the decision. If the city got rid of its police force, there would be no going back.
• They decided they can save money by making budget cuts themselves.
• They felt that Clearwater officers would be getting a raw deal. Although the Sheriff's Office would hire the officers, it would be at reduced wages.
Clearwater residents who came to City Hall passionately defended the Police Department.
"We know our officers," said Susie Boshoff, president of the Old Clearwater Bay Neighborhood Association. "They come through our neighborhood and they know who's supposed to be there and who's not. I don't know that you can put a price tag on that."
Shelley Kuroghlian, president of the Clearwater Neighborhoods Coalition, said she'd be willing to pay more to keep the police.
One dissenting voice was Joe Paige, a former City Council candidate who argued that from a strictly economic perspective, the city should consider bringing on the Sheriff's Office. "If we don't change course, our economy is headed for a catastrophe," he said.
Council members warned the public that sticking with the Police Department will likely mean steep cuts to services like libraries, parks and recreation.
"It's difficult to look at 8.7 million a year in savings and say we're just not going to do that," said Councilman John Doran.
He asked: How deep are people willing to cut other parts of the city government? Should Clearwater go down to one library and one recreation center? Should it resurface streets every 15 years instead of every 10?
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.