ST. PETE BEACH — The City Commission is just as concerned as are residents about the quality of service residents and businesses would receive from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office if the police department were disbanded.
Commissioners say they are also concerned about what would happen to the police officers now serving the city.
"The commission is a taking a very hard look at the PCSO before making the decision to put the option of going to the sheriff before the voters," City Commissioner Marvin Shavlan wrote in a recent email.
Tuesday, the commission will question Sheriff Bob Gualtieri in depth on those issues and many others.
The commission must decide by August whether to ask voters if they would like to make the switch. The police department is part of the city's charter and can be disbanded only by referendum.
Last week, the commission heard from a large group of residents who support keeping the police department intact.
Tuesday, the commission is not expected to allow residents to join in the questioning of Gualtieri.
But if what commissioners hear is reassuring enough to go forward, Gualtieri likely will be invited back to conduct a series of public question-and-answer sessions prior to a referendum in November.
During the past week, City Manager Mike Bonfield collected a list of questions from commissioners to be posed to Gualtieri after his presentation at Tuesday's meeting.
As compiled by Bonfield, they are grouped into three general categories: history and background of the Sheriff's Office, how the transition would be managed and the kinds of services the sheriff would provide the city.
Here are just some of the questions commissioners want answered:
• How have contracted law enforcement services worked with other cities and how were fees determined?
• How would complaints be handled and how would deputies interact with the city manager and elected officials?
• Would longevity and salaries of existing police officers be considered if hired by the sheriff and would those former officers be assigned to St. Pete Beach?
• What level of training would be given to deputies patrolling the city?
• Would deputies conduct routine beach or marine patrols?
• Would there be any reduction in response time to resident complaints?
• What level of attention would detectives give to city investigations?
Commissioners also want to know how nonemergency calls would be handled by dispatchers, as well as what other kinds of special services might be provided by the Sheriff's Office — such as emergency management during hurricanes, community policing and coverage of special events.
So far, the city has determined that it could save $1.35 million a year by switching to the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement services — slightly more than next year's anticipated $1.25 million budget deficit.
The majority of that projected budget deficit is a $752,000 increase in pension fund costs.
Negotiations are now ongoing with police, fire and employee unions, but even if the pension structures are drastically changed, the city will not see much substantial savings for at least several years.
Since 2003, the city has cut approximately 30 employees to save about $1 million, but Bonfield says further significant cuts are not possible without severely reducing services.
The city's property tax rate is among the lowest for similarly sized cities that operate both police and fire departments, which make up 52 percent of St. Pete Beach's budget.
If in the following weeks, it becomes clear that residents don't want to disband their police department, the commission will then be faced with another contentious decision — whether to raise property taxes.
The city's property tax rate now stands at about $2.85 per $1,000 of assessed, taxable property value. That would have to increase to about $3.35 to close the budget gap, according to Bonfield.
Budget decisions are usually made in August — which is also when the Supervisor of Elections requires referendum ballot language to be submitted for the November election.
Then there is the fact that the final budget must be approved before Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year — and more than a month before voters would be able to decide the fate of the police department.
All of which makes July a crucial decision month for city officials.