CLEARWATER — More than $8 million. That's how much Pinellas County's sheriff says Clearwater could save next year if it disbands the Clearwater Police Department and hires the Sheriff's Office instead.
That's an eye-catching number — especially because Clearwater is facing a $9 million budget shortfall and might have to close libraries and recreation centers to stay out of the red.
In short, this means Clearwater's leaders will have a big decision to make.
At the city's request, Sheriff Jim Coats has given Clearwater a proposal detailing how much it would cost for his agency to provide the city with the same number of patrol officers and detectives working the streets that Clearwater has now.
Coats concluded it would cost nearly $29.2 million, compared to the Clearwater Police Department's current budget of $37.4 million.
That's a potential savings of $8.2 million a year.
However, that number will almost certainly shrink, said Clearwater's city manager, Bill Horne.
Clearwater officials will go over the sheriff's proposal to identify costs that aren't included in it. For example, the expense of maintaining Clearwater's police station and substations is not included in the sheriff's price tag, Horne said.
"We are trying to understand what are the basic differences between what he's proposing vs. what we're doing now," Horne said, "to see if the $8 million in savings is going to hold."
The sheriff proposes to save Clearwater money by eliminating a number of supervisors, communications operators and support personnel whose jobs he says could be done by sheriff's staffers instead.
Clearwater officials expect to bring this issue to the City Council in about a month, after they've closely studied the sheriff's offer.
The council has approached this subject with reluctance. The city just hired a police chief, and council members are not eager to disband the city's Police Department.
"That's a lot of money," Vice Mayor John Doran said of the $8.2 million. "It deserves to have careful examination and due consideration. It's certainly fair for us to give the police chief and the city manager the time to look at this with the care that it needs to be looked at."
"It's not just about the money for a lot of people," he added.
If the city ends up going down this road, Mayor Frank Hibbard thinks Clearwater voters should ultimately make the call, not just the five City Council members. "This would be the largest decision the city has faced in my tenure, and it's one that I think the citizens have the right to weigh in on directly," Hibbard said.
Clearwater's city charter would not require a referendum to dissolve the Police Department, but the council could decide to hold a public vote, said City Attorney Pam Akin.
Council members are still somewhat skeptical of the sheriff's proposal, and they want to know more about how he would save the city money.
"It's difficult to understand how there could be an $8.2 million savings without reducing service levels," Paul Gibson said.
"Let's find out exactly what he's talking about," George Cretekos said.
The Sheriff's Office patrols not only unincorporated Pinellas County, but also a dozen of its municipalities. However, many cities believe no one can serve their residents better than local police. All of Pinellas' biggest cities — St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Pinellas Park and Largo — have their own departments.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.