INDIAN ROCKS BEACH — Growing budget problems could force major cuts in law enforcement services and a possible switch from the Sheriff's Office, the current service provider, to the Indian Shores Police Department.
If the city were to switch to Indian Shores, it would represent a sharp departure from the growing trend for beach cities to use the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement. The most recent switch occurred a year ago when Belleair Beach closed its police department.
The Indian Rocks Beach City Commission, facing a possible $1-million budget shortfall, met in a special workshop last week to discuss "options" to reduce the $858,000 cost of continuing with the present two deputies per shift for another year.
"We have a unique problem that could put us in bankruptcy at the end of the year," said Commissioner Bert Valery. "We are begging for some extraordinary help (to reduce law enforcement costs)."
The new contract with the Sheriff's Office, which would begin Oct. 1, represents a 6.69 percent increase.
That would pay for two deputies per shift. Services provided by those deputies would include normal call response, "proactive" patrols, residential area checks, beach patrols, traffic patrols, and targeted patrols of Gulf Boulevard bars and other problem areas.
"I can appreciate the economic hard times and budget constraints we are all facing, but I am not about to compromise the safety of our officers," Sheriff Jim Coats told the commission last week when asked whether one deputy per shift was another alternative.
The sheriff said the city could cut one of its six deputies, resulting in some shifts with only one deputy on patrol. He warned, however, that back-up coverage during reduced shifts would be provided only for high-priority emergency calls.
"If a deputy is investigating an accident and there is another call for service, the accident gets priority," Coats said.
When Valery told Coats the commission wants "more bang for the buck," the sheriff cautioned the city against "compromising public safety."
Commissioner Terry Wollin said while the city "would never do anything to endanger our citizens," it may be forced to "give up some of the frills."
At the urging of Commissioner Cookie Kennedy, the commission also agreed to ask Indian Shores how much it would charge to take over law enforcement in the city.
Indian Shores Mayor Jim Lawrence said Tuesday his police department is "interested" in providing services to Indian Rocks Beach, but will need a formal request before developing a proposal.
"I like what we have now," said Mayor R.B. Johnson. "I am willing to look at alternatives, but I am very reluctant to change. We had our own police department and had a number of problems."
Resident David Pearson urged the city to stay with the Sheriff's Office.
"We had Keystone cops here once, please don't do it again," Pearson said.
In 1993, the city abolished its police department and switched to the Sheriff's Office.
Several incidents prompted the change. One involved a Largo woman who was killed by a teenager driving over 100 mph. Three Indian Rocks Beach officers were chasing the teen at the time of the crash.
Subsequently, the city's former chief, Charley Flesher, was found to have given handguns belonging to the department to two of his ex-wives. The city also discovered that its police officers had not trained with firearms for more than two years and had not received other state-mandated training courses.