ST. PETE BEACH — The city could save about $1.35 million a year if it closed its Police Department and switched to the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services.
And if the city administration moved its offices from the current City Hall on Corey Avenue to the police building at 200 76th Ave., the city could save substantially more.
Those are the facts according to an analysis prepared by City Manager Mike Bonfield in response to a request from the City Commission several weeks ago to solicit a proposal from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
Currently, the city's Police Department costs more than $4.6 million a year to run. Gualtieri says his office could do the same job for just over $2 million. But even if the Police Department were closed, continuing pension liabilities, as well as utilities, maintenance and debt payments for the police building would reduce the annual savings to about $1.35 million, according to Bonfield.
The sheriff's proposal includes eight deputies, three sergeants, a community policing officer, investigation services equivalent to one detective, dispatching services and supervision for all officers.
When allowing for days off, vacation and sick days, the city would have one sergeant and two deputies patrolling between 3 a.m. and 3 p.m.; one sergeant and three deputies from 3 to 7 p.m.; one sergeant and four deputies from 7 to 11 p.m.; and one sergeant and three deputies from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.
In addition, the community police deputy would work on a flexible, 40-hour a week schedule.
"This total is comparable to that provided (by the city's Police Department) in the last couple of years," Bonfield said in his report to the commission.
All of the city's current police officers and department employees would be offered "a job opportunity" with the Sheriff's Office, Bonfield said.
By using the Police Department building for city offices, the existing City Hall could be "repurposed" for private use in connection with redevelopment of the Corey Avenue area, Bonfield said.
"Such a change would provide significant financial relief to the city operation," Bonfield said.
Fueling much of the debate over the future of the Police Department is $1.25 million in red ink projected for next year's city budget.
The commission just dipped into its reserves to cover an anticipated $250,000 shortfall in its current budget to cover burgeoning legal expenses tied to the city's legal battle over redevelopment issues.
Next year's expected shortfall is caused mostly by an anticipated $752,000 increase in Police and Fire Department pension fund costs.
In the end, switching to the sheriff would require a citywide referendum since the Police Department is part of the city's charter.
If the commission decides to seek voter approval for closing the Police Department, the earliest a referendum could be held would be on the Nov. 6 ballot.
To get on that ballot, a decision and ballot language would have to be approved and submitted to the Supervisor of Elections no later than Aug. 3
"I don't lean either way at this point, but there is no question the city is in a tough financial situation. We could save a lot of money," Commissioner Marvin Shavlan said last week.
Earlier, Shavlan sent out an email outlining the choices facing the city in hopes residents would tell him what they want the commission to do.
He is also gathering opinions from mayors in other cities who have switched to the Sheriff's Office.
The sheriff provides law enforcement for Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, North Redington Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore, Belleair Bluffs, Dunedin, Oldsmar, Seminole, Safety Harbor and South Pasadena, as well as the unincorporated areas of Tierra Verde, East Lake and Palm Harbor.
Shavlan said he has heard from seven mayors so far and is getting "glowing reports."
As for residents replying to his emails or talking to him in person or on the phone, he said the response is mixed, but slightly more are in favor of closing the Police Department.
"A lot of people are concerned about response time. Many are under the misconception that the sheriff's deputies will be coming from the mainland to answer calls," he said.
Tuesday, Bonfield will ask Shavlan and the rest of the commission to schedule an in-depth discussion of the future of the Police Department at its June 12 meeting. The next step would be to ask Gualtieri to come to the commission's June 26 meeting to answer questions. Ballot language would be voted on in July.
Bonfield said if the commission decides to pursue switching to the Sheriff's Office, Gualtieri would conduct community open houses beginning in August and through the election to answer residents' questions.