Friday, April 20, 2018
News Roundup

Kenneth City to take time to ponder future of police department

KENNETH CITY — This town lost its police chief last week when Mike Rossi resigned after a tumultuous 17 months in office.

Now the department faces an uncertain future as officials struggle whether to ask voters if they want to dissolve the department and have the sheriff take over.

Whatever they decide to do, it's not likely to happen quickly.

"My plan is to basically regroup at this point," Town Manager Matt Campbell said Tuesday. "I'm basically going to take three to six months to see how the interim chief works."

That breather will also give officials time to see if they can make the department more financially efficient and more responsive to the wishes of residents who want to see officers who are friendlier and more visible in the neighborhoods.

Campbell's plan has support from at least two council members.

"I have always supported them, the police department. It's troubled me that in recent years, it hasn't worked the way it used to," Mayor Teresa Zemaitis said. "My first goal would be to see if we can't get the department functioning the way I think residents expect it to function."

Council member Ellen Dalbo agreed that she's willing to allow some time for Campbell to change things.

"I would love to see the police department work, but I have my doubts," Dalbo said. "It's kind of now like a wait-and-see process. I believe our present police department has gotten so lackadaisical and unaccountable that we have to fix that."

But, Dalbo added, "I don't know how much time we should spend seeing if it will work this way or just putting it on the referendum."

This is not the first time a Kenneth City council has faced this choice. Five of the last six chiefs have left office amid turmoil. The sixth — Jim Ernst — retired in 2007 because of health reasons. The town has since dedicated the park at the Community Hall complex, 4600 58th St. N, to him.

In 1999, the council put the department's future to the voters, who overwhelmingly rejected dissolving the department despite the massive savings they would have seen by contracting with the Pinellas County Sheriff.

It's unclear if the result would be any different if the referendum were held today. Campbell said that, in the three months he has been on the job, he has heard much criticism of the police chief but no groundswell of sentiment for getting rid of the department itself.

Dalbo said she thinks it would depend on which side got the vote out.

"I think it's a generation thing. I think the older people (are remembering that) at one time, they were the neighborhood police department. … I think the younger people are thinking well, we see the sheriff all the time anyway," she said. "I think it would be a close vote, but I think if it's presented to the people correctly that this is how much money we would save (then) it would pass."

Zemaitis agreed cost is a major issue. The department's annual operating budget is about $1.1 million, or about 55 percent of the overall $2 million town budget.

"I think we are spending too much on the department," Zemaitis said.

Residents really like having their own police force, she said, but "I think if they understood how much it cost, they might second-guess."

The sheriff, they all agreed, could do the job for less. How much less would depend on what the town asked for. And those savings could be diverted to other town projects — from beautification to upgraded infrastructure.

One of the complaints officials had against Rossi was his failure to have a live person answering the phone at the police department. Calls for service were referred by recorded message to the sheriff.

On Tuesday, nothing had changed. A call around 12:15 p.m. to the department was answered by a recorded message that referred emergencies to 911 and other calls for service to the sheriff. The recording noted that the department closes for lunch from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. The system does allow callers to leave voicemail messages for officers and to dial 0 to reach a live person.

Interim Chief Sgt. Kevin Matson said he has served as interim chief before and believes he can handle the job again. He said he has confidence in Campbell's ability to find a chief who will be a long-timer.

Does Matson want the top job?

"No, no, no, no," he said. "No, I do not want the job."

With the town coming up on budget season, Campbell said his goal is to see if he can reduce the department's budget without jeopardizing service or the safety of residents and the officers.

"I'd like to see if we can make the department work," Campbell said.

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450. Follow @alindbergtimes on Twitter.

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