KENNETH CITY — After spending three years haggling over a new contract, the police and town have agreed that they can't agree.
Kenneth City officials received official notice of the impasse last week in an email from Michael Krohn, executive director of the Sun Coast Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents the police officers.
"At this point, with the town declining to make any changes to the rejected proposed PBA contract and the town has offered its 'best and final,' the PBA bargaining unit must declare impasse," Krohn wrote May 30.
That official term means mediation must begin to bring the two sides together.
It is unclear why negotiations have dragged on for three years, since about April 2010. Kenneth City police Officer John Fugate, the department's union representative, referred questions to Krohn. Krohn could not be reached for comment.
Kenneth City Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said the drawn-out process was caused in part by officers' decision to change unions from the Fraternal Order of Police to the PBA. Officers have been operating under the contract that expired in the fall of 2010 while the negotiations continued.
Zemaitis said she was unsure why the union declared an impasse. The mayor said she thought the town and the officers had reached an agreement about six months ago, but that has apparently fallen through.
Confusion over the reasons for the impasse isn't likely to last for long. The first step in the impasse process involves the town and the union agreeing on the topics about which they're at odds.
After that, the matter will go to a mediator. If that doesn't resolve the stalemate, the dispute could be heard by a special master, or judge, and then the Town Council.
The police force is Kenneth City's biggest department, with 13 employees — the chief, an administrative assistant and 11 officers. At about $1.1 million a year, the department accounts for about 55 percent of the town's overall $2 million operating budget.
The department has long been a source of controversy within the town. Several chiefs have left or been forced out before their contracts expired. A grand jury concluded in 1995 that the police were "pawns" for political patronage. It suggested the town dissolve the Police Department and hire a city manager or elect a strong mayor.
Five years later, in March 2000, the council placed a referendum on the ballot allowing taxpayers to choose whether to keep the department or dissolve it and contract with the Pinellas County sheriff for police service. Taxpayers, by an overwhelming 68 percent of the vote, elected to keep the department.
Two years ago, Zemaitis called in the sheriff to evaluate the department because of complaints she had received. The sheriff found multiple problems and poor management. A majority of the council refused to believe the report. The then-police chief kept his job but retired last year. The council hired Michael Rossi to replace him.
Last month, during a discussion concerning a possible change that would turn the town government over to a professional city manager, Zemaitis suggested it might be time again to evaluate the cost of the department versus the cost of contracting out police service.
The council and residents at a workshop were vocal in their refusal to consider the possibility.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8450.