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Kenneth City mayor minces no words in email to police chief

Mike Rossi, chief of a small police force that takes half the town’s budget, says he isn’t trying to put up walls.

Mike Rossi, chief of a small police force that takes half the town’s budget, says he isn’t trying to put up walls.

KENNETH CITY — Residents here pay a hefty price for personalized police service, but Mayor Teresa Zemaitis isn't sure they're getting it.

Zemaitis' concerns focus on two issues:

• The referral of all service calls — emergency or otherwise — to the Sheriff's Office. Kenneth City police Chief Mike Rossi even has a sheriff's number listed as his personal contact number on the town's website.

• A suggestion by Rossi that Kenneth City sign a one-year contract with buycrash.com, which would sell traffic accident reports for $16. The website provides software the town could use to enter information about traffic accidents. At an accident scene, an officer would give motorists a card or other information with the buycrash Web address. Motorists, or others, who used the website to get a copy of the report would pay the $16 and Kenneth City would get up to $5 for each one. Currently, the Kenneth City police give out accident reports for free or just a few cents a page.

"To me, it's just a double whammy on depersonalization of our Police Department," Zemaitis said.

Rossi said his intent is not to put up walls. The sheriff has long answered the town's emergency calls at nights and on weekends. Rossi said he extended that to 24 hours a day because the town simply is not set up to do dispatch.

Referring calls for service — even code complaints about such things as grass growing too high — is a matter of training residents to call the folks who can most quickly reach and dispatch a Kenneth City officer to the scene, Rossi said.

The suggestion that the town sign a contract with buycrash.com is more an effort to make retrieving traffic reports easier for drivers, he said. Many drivers who are involved in crashes in the town are not Kenneth City residents, he said, and it would be easier for them or their insurance company to go to the site for a report than to come into the office. They could still come into the office if they wanted, he said.

The dispute is the latest bit of strife surrounding the Kenneth City Police Department that goes back to at least the mid 1990s, when the department and town were embroiled in political turmoil. A grand jury suggested, among other things, that the town convert to a city manager form of government, dissolve the Police Department and contract with the sheriff. The idea was to take politics out of the department and save money.

Several years later, however, voters emphatically voted "no" to the idea of disbanding the department and turning policing over to the Pinellas County sheriff. The department has 13 employees — the chief, an administrative assistant and 11 officers.

The main reason generally given for maintaining a department that takes $1.1 million of Kenneth City's overall $2 million budget is the personalized service residents receive. But Zemaitis says that no longer seems to be the case.

"The Police Department no longer answers the phone, even though we were promised they would because council was concerned that Kenneth City is a small town and we wanted to make sure the human connection would remain," Zemaitis wrote Rossi in a recent email.

"When people dial the number, they are asked to push a million buttons and it is difficult to get a person on the phone. Our clerks have been instructed to give residents with simple code violation complaints the sheriff's number so that all calls are dispatched through the sheriff."

Buycrash, the mayor said, is just one more indicator that walls are going up: "Now we don't even want people walking into the Police Department to get a copy of their accident report? Absurd."

Worse, she said, buycrash is on a par with the red-light cameras — just another way to soak taxpayers.

"It is yet another moneymaking scheme," she wrote in the same email. The cost and reimbursement are both offensive, and "I have no desire to rape people over the cost of a piece of paper or two minutes to pull a report and make a photocopy."

Rossi denied he was trying to make money from buycrash.

"The $5 per report would go to the town, not the Police Department. If the town wanted, they could deny the money or donate the proceeds to a charity of their choice," the chief wrote in reply.

"My desire is to receive the software for free to save the town money, obtain better equipment for the officers and allow citizens an easy, modern way to receive a copy of a crash report."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at alindberg@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8450.

Kenneth City mayor minces no words in email to police chief 07/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 1:55pm]
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