ST. PETE BEACH — Voters here will likely decide the fate of their police department in November.
On Tuesday, after a nearly hourlong presentation by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the City Commission unanimously instructed City Manager Mike Bonfield and City Attorney Mike Davis to draft a referendum ballot question.
"We have budget constraints," said Commissioner Bev Garnett. "It is time for people to look at this. It is our fiscal responsibility."
Bonfield said next year's preliminary budget is nearly $1 million dollars in the red. Most of that shortfall is caused by increases in pension plan costs for police, fire and city employees.
Closing the police department would save the city about $1.4 million each year — and halt future pension contributions for active employees in that department.
Mayor Steve McFarlin said residents should not "fear" considering switching to the Sheriff's Office.
"This is the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. It is a serious entity. The sheriff's department is not new, it has been around forever," he said.
The agency has over 2,700 employees and a $215 million budget.
"I was listening tonight for anything that would be a stopper," said Commissioner Jim Parent. "We should move forward with the next steps."
The ordinance creating the referendum will be voted on twice in July and must then be submitted to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections in August to be included on the November ballot.
Bonfield said Gualtieri will be asked to answer residents' questions at a series of public hearings and community meetings before the November election.
"I know this is a very emotionally charged issue," Gualtieri told the commission. "I have not and will not ever engage in conduct to drive the outcome."
Gualtieri said the switch would not mean any reduction in service, response time, or control.
"One myth, often stated by people who are trying to drive the outcome, is that you will lose control over services. That could not be further from the truth," Gualtieri said.
The city will decide how many deputies it wants patrolling and what extra services will be provided.
Those services range from handling traffic accidents and investigating burglaries, domestic abuse and other violent crimes, to enforcing noise ordinances and removing snakes from bathtubs, he said.
"We have contracted with cities since the early 1970s," Gualtieri said. "We respond to everything. Our policy is if somebody calls and wants a police officer, we go."
The deputies exclusively assigned to the city will be specially selected, he said.
All current St. Pete Beach police officers and support staff will be offered jobs in with Sheriff's Office and would be paid their same salaries up to the current maximum pay of $67,000 for deputies, he said.
Vice Mayor Marvin Shavlan cited a special review conducted for Dunedin by the International City/County Management Association that gave the Sheriff's Office very high marks for its services.
Those services are "by far the best we (the ICMA) have seen and should serve as a model" for contracted police services, Shavlan said, reading from the report.
Gualtieri urged commissioners to tour his headquarters and even ride along with deputies in one of the 12 cities that contract for law enforcement with the Sheriff's Office.