CLEARWATER — They came to City Hall to talk about streetwalkers, drug houses, break-ins, drunks and vagrants.
They were describing the blighted East Gateway area where they live. The main approach to downtown Clearwater has long been crime-ridden and dilapidated. Ten people beseeched the City Council on Thursday night to keep the community policing team that patrols the 175-acre area.
Officials heard them out but could make no promises. Clearwater will be making deep budget cuts soon, and it appears that no part of the city's work force will go untouched, including the Police Department.
"We really can't ignore any department, given the level of cuts we're talking about," said City Council member Paul Gibson. "We're talking many millions of dollars."
Community policing teams who get around on bicycles in the East Gateway and Clearwater Beach areas might be scaled back or eliminated entirely to save money.
A consultant who was hired to assess Clearwater's police force recommended that the city phase out a four-officer BeachWalk team, saving nearly $312,000 in salaries and benefits, and cut the number of East Gateway community officers from seven to four, saving $220,000.
The officers' jobs would be cut through attrition, not layoffs. The consultant said the community teams are expendable because those areas can be policed by patrol officers assigned to those districts.
But East Gateway residents take issue with that. They say the community officers have made a noticeable difference.
"I know you all have a tough decision to make," resident Ron Daniels told the council, "but I think it would be a terrible thing to go backwards now."
Shelley Kuroghlian, a member of the grass roots East Gateway Coalition, described how the community officers have reached out to all kinds of residents, going door-to-door to sign people up for a neighborhood watch.
Coalition member Joanna Siskin warned that the area's crime problems could spill into other parts of the city: "What happens in the Gateway doesn't stay in the Gateway, and it impacts all the neighborhoods that border it."
However, the city expects to have to cut $7 million to $13 million from its budget for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
And at the same City Council meeting Thursday night, several North Greenwood residents pleaded with the council not to close the North Greenwood Library.
Mayor Frank Hibbard and other council members said they want to review City Manager Bill Horne's proposed budget next month before they begin making decisions. They intend to spread the cuts around.
"Throughout this process, I am going to make sure that the pain is as equitable as we possibly can make it throughout the city," Hibbard said. "We're going to get to a point where we're talking rec centers vs. a police officer, or library hours vs. rescue units for the Fire Department. Those are the decisions that we're going to be having."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.