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Kenneth City police chief seeks 23 percent budget increase

KENNETH CITY — Police Chief Mike Rossi wants a 23 percent increase in his budget next year.

The $123,000 increase would pay for such things as rifles, shotguns, new patrol cars and training. It does not include any proposed salary increases for officers. Kenneth City is currently negotiating new contracts with its officers. Those negotiations have reached an impasse. The proposal does however ask for raises for himself and his administrative assistant.

It's unclear what impact the proposal might have on the town budget or tax rate. Mayor Teresa Zemaitis, the town's chief financial officer, said she's running the numbers now.

"I call it a wish list," Zemaitis said.

The next step, she said, is for the council to consider all budget requests at a July 31 workshop. That's when the financial picture will be clearer and council members can go through all departmental requests to decide what should be included in the upcoming budget. But Zemaitis agreed that, should the council grant the entire request, it's likely the town would have to dig into savings, raise taxes, eliminate or cut back services, or some combination to make ends meet.

While it might be only a wish list, Rossi's request has at least one person in town wondering if it's time to consider alternatives.

"I honestly don't think the public understand what goes on and the costs," said Larry Hauft, a longtime Police Department supporter. "It's getting real close to saying that it's time to put this up for a vote."

Hauft said the department, whose $1.1 million annual operating budget accounts for about 55 percent of the town's overall $2 million budget, has lurched from one crisis to another.

"We just can't seem to get this chief thing right," Hauft said.

Kenneth City's woes with police chiefs stem back at least to the early to mid-1990s when political infighting among council members and the chief resulted in a grand jury investigation. The grand jury concluded that the town should eliminate the department and bring in the sheriff. Officials ignored that advice and went from one chief to another, buying several out before their contracts were up. When given the opportunity to decide in the late 1990s or early 2000s, voters overwhelmingly opted to keep the department.

But problems have continued.

A couple of years ago, Zemaitis called in the sheriff to investigate the department after receiving a barrage of complaints. The sheriff found numerous incidents of poor leadership, lack of training and shoddy, worn out equipment. Zemaitis and the sheriff were slammed by many in the community. Rossi was hired after that chief retired.

His budget proposal mirrors many of the needs singled out by the sheriff's report. But bringing the department up to standard is expensive and, earlier this year, Zemaitis suggested it might be time to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of having a department. But she was booed and hissed by many in the audience and some other council members. She was accused of a one-woman ambush against the department.

Zemaitis agreed Thursday that some in Kenneth City are in love with the idea of a small, personalized Police Department but have not fully reconciled that with the cost. The mayor said she has learned her lesson in trying to raise the issue but believes that, at some point, the town's going to have to decide if it wants a department, what services should be offered and if it's willing to pay. Then they have to look to see if they're truly getting what they pay for.

Rossi said that's not his discussion. His job as chief, he said, is to create a department that provides service to its citizens while trying to keep its officers from harm.

"If you want a Police Department, you have to fund it appropriately," Rossi said. "I'm trying to say, here's what we need."

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

Kenneth City police chief seeks 23 percent budget increase 07/19/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 19, 2013 4:04pm]

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