GULFPORT — A countywide prisoner transport system, reminiscent of the "paddy wagons" of the early 1900s, may soon be taking people arrested by the Gulfport Police Department to jail.
Interim City Manager Jim O'Reilly is recommending that the City Council agree Tuesday to join the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and other cities in a consolidated program funded by an expanded U.S. Department of Justice Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant.
Pinellas County and all 26 cities in the county recently were awarded a total of $3.129 million in JAG grants through the federal stimulus program and are required to submit a joint application by May 18 for a program that would benefit all recipients.
Under the Sheriff's Office's proposed program, Gulfport's $29,874 share of the grant would cover up to 767 prisoner transports in the next 18 months.
When people are arrested in Gulfport now, one of the city's four on-duty police officers on a given shift must drive them to the county jail.
This takes time, costs money and reduces the city's available police patrols by one-fourth, O'Reilly said Friday.
The city averages 510 prisoner transports a year at a cost of about $75 per transport. Each transport takes about two hours, according to interim police Chief Robert Vincent.
"This plan would allow us to maintain or increase service levels at no additional cost," Vincent said.
Under the proposed joint program, a prisoner transport van operated by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office would pick up people under arrest either at the crime scene, at the city's Police Department or at other yet-to-be designated locations and take them to the 49th Street County Jail.
The Sheriff's Office began a prisoner transport program last year, and has since "realized very significant efficiencies," according to Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri.
Each of the department's eight vans can carry up to 10 prisoners. By using the vans, deputies can remain "on post," he said.
In March, the Sheriff's Office and the Clearwater Police Department successfully tested a pilot prisoner transport program in that city.
Two weeks ago Gualtieri met with representatives of the county's cities to propose the joint transport program.
Other municipal police departments invited to join the $1.825 million prisoner transport program include St. Pete Beach, Pinellas Park, Largo, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs.
St. Petersburg has opted out and plans to use its remaining $1.3 million share of the JAG funds for other programs within the department.
Oldsmar and Seminole have voted to join the program.
Gualtieri said although the grant money probably won't be available until July, the Sheriff's Office plans to phase in the program beginning in late May.
If the Gulfport City Council decides instead to opt out of the joint program, the city would forfeit up to 10 percent of the grant award.
Other cities in the county that are served by the Sheriff's Office also must formally apply for their JAG funds to be used in the joint prisoner transport program.
Gulfport is not required to provide any matching funds, according to O'Reilly, and will save an estimated $37,800 in the coming year.
"This is why this would be such a good program for us," O'Reilly said.
In a related matter, the council is also considering applying for another Department of Justice community policing grant to fill three vacant positions in the city Police Department.