GULFPORT — The city is one step closer to having all of its 911 calls dispatched by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
The City Council voted 3-2 Thursday to approve the first reading of its 2011-12 budget, which calls for outsourcing dispatching and parks lawn mowing to eliminate nine positions.
The move doesn't mean a loss of jobs, as the city plans to reassign the four parks employees. Officials say the city has been assured the Sheriff's Office will absorb the five displaced dispatchers.
The vote — recorded after more than 20 residents gave impassioned pleas for and against the proposal — was not only to balance the budget but also to change the way of life in the eclectic community along the shores of Boca Ciega Bay.
Having a full-service Police Department only blocks away is a large factor in Gulfport's small-town feel.
Although 911 calls already are routed to the county, the local police number receives more than 30,000 "nonemergency" calls a year.
Mayor Mike Yakes, who has been mayor since 1991 and on the council since 1986, and Sam Henderson, a two-year councilman and the second most senior, opposed the budget plan. Each made unsuccessful counterproposals aimed at keeping the dispatchers in-house.
"People we are representing are asking to keep this," Henderson said.
"I listened to the people, and the stakeholders in the community say, 'We wish to keep dispatch and the Parks Department,' " Yakes said.
"This is a premature decision. It's a decision we might have to come to sometime in the future, but not now. No one is in favor of this. It takes me an hour and a half to walk through Sweetbay because so many people want to talk about it," Henderson said.
However, council newcomers Barbara Banno, elected this year, and David Hastings and Jennifer Salmon, both elected last year, didn't buy the reasoning. Their majority carried the vote.
"This is a tremendous savings for the city," Hastings said.
"We have to stop the bleeding to save the patient," Banno said.
In other budget-balancing measures, the council voted 5-0 to raise the millage rate from 3.47 to 4 and increase water-sewer and sanitation rates 10 percent.
According to City Manager Jim O'Reilly, the new millage rate — about a $53 increase for a home assessed at $150,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption — will increase city revenue by $110,843 in 2012 and increase funds for its waterfront district by $3,673.
The utility rate increase will add $437,330 to its coffers.
The increases will add $121,338 to the city's $4.6 million reserves, O'Reilly said.
Without the measures, the city would have had to take money out of its reserves to balance the budget.
The second and final vote on the budget is scheduled for Sept. 21.