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Pinellas County sheriff's proposal could be solution to Clearwater's budget woes

CLEARWATER

When the city's leaders start cutting Clearwater's budget this summer, pondering the fate of libraries and parks and rec centers, one number will loom over the proceedings like a flashing neon sign.

EIGHT. MILLION. DOLLARS.

That's how much Pinellas County's sheriff says he can save the city by taking over law enforcement in Clearwater. And that could force the city to make a monumental decision.

If that $8 million offer stands up to scrutiny, then officials could accept the sheriff's proposal and disband the city's Police Department. That would be a dramatic move for a city of Clearwater's size, but it could also wipe out the city's entire deficit in one fell swoop.

Or officials could tell the sheriff, "Thanks but no thanks," and make a slew of smaller budget cuts or tax hikes. But all of the other potential cuts are small potatoes compared to this one.

For instance, last year the City Council nearly closed the East Branch and North Greenwood libraries, which would have saved about $800,000 annually. Those libraries will likely be in danger again this year.

And the city recently shuttered two outdated buildings, the Morningside Recreation Center and Harborview Center, saving $600,000 a year in operating costs.

It would take a lot of libraries and rec centers to add up to $8 million.

Of course, it remains to be seen if that $8 million in savings will hold up. That's a big question.

Sheriff Jim Coats proposes to keep the same number of patrol officers and detectives on duty in Clearwater, eliminating some supervisors, communications operators and support staffers whose jobs he says are duplicated at the Sheriff's Office.

Coats says that would cost the city $29.2 million a year compared to the Clearwater Police Department's $37.4 million budget.

However, City Manager Bill Horne, police Chief Tony Holloway and their staffs are going over the sheriff's proposal with a fine-tooth comb.

"We're working with the sheriff to better refine the numbers," Horne said. "You can expect the savings to be decreased as we identify more costs that he has not factored in," such as the expense of operating Clearwater's police headquarters.

Staffers plan to bring this issue to the City Council at its May 17 work session and its May 20 public meeting.

Jon Walser, a Clearwater patrol officer and president of the local Fraternal Order of Police, said officers are confident that the Police Department will stay because consultants who examined it last year found that it wasn't too top-heavy with administrators. The consultants said the city wouldn't save much by switching to the Sheriff's Office.

"Penny for penny, dollar for dollar, they proved you can't do it any cheaper unless you're willing to cut services," Walser said.

Mayor Frank Hibbard remembers the consultants' findings, too. Now he wants them to take a look at the sheriff's proposal.

"We need to drill down into these numbers," the mayor said, "and see if there are savings that we can get ourselves, or savings that can only be achieved through the sheriff."

Due to declining property values, Clearwater is facing a $7.6 million budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, which starts in October. That deficit had been $9 million before the City Council recently decided to pay off some debt.

In the past, when the Sheriff's Office has contracted to provide law enforcement for a city, it has typically absorbed the bulk of that city's police force into its own ranks. But Coats is facing budget challenges of his own. He plans to cut 100 jobs because the County Commission asked him to trim $30 million next year.

The sheriff says it's far too premature for him to talk about things like that. He's referring all questions to Clearwater officials.

"This is Clearwater's proposal to work with," Coats said. "They need to go through whatever process they feel is appropriate to consider it."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4160.

Fast facts

Pinellas County's sheriff says he can save Clearwater $8.2 million a year. Last year, the city considered several smaller budget cuts:

Morningside Recreation Center (closed): $250,000

Harborview Center (closed): $350,000

North Greenwood Library (still open): $150,000

East Branch Library (still open): $658,000

Jolley Trolley: $150,000 (city's contribution continued)

Pinellas County's sheriff says he can save Clearwater more than $8 million by taking over police operations — with no reduction in service. Last budget year, Clearwater City Council members spent months agonizing over much smaller cuts, some of which they couldn't bring themselves to make. Among them:

Morningside Recreation Center (closed): $250,000

Harborview Center (closed): $350,000

North Greenwood Library (still open): $150,000

East Branch Library (still open): $658,000

Jolley Trolley: $150,000 (city contribution continued)

Brought up this year: Disbanding police department:
$8 million (according to Sheriff Jim Coats)

Pinellas County sheriff's proposal could be solution to Clearwater's budget woes 04/24/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 27, 2010 1:12am]
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