ST. PETE BEACH — The City Commission unanimously approved a $1.5 million contract with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office on Tuesday night, agreeing to replace its own police force with the larger law enforcement agency.
As of 7 a.m. on Jan. 6, the city of St. Pete Beach will no longer have its own police department. At that hour, the blue uniforms of the police force will have completed their last shift, handing responsibility for the city's safety to the greens and whites of the Sheriff's Office.
The contract, which is nearly identical to those used by other cities that pay the sheriff for protection, such as Madeira Beach, covers the next fiscal year — a period of nine months in which sheriff's deputies will patrol the city's streets, beaches and intracoastal and beach waterways.
Replacing the 24 officers in the city department will be 14 deputies, five sergeants, one detective and one community policing deputy, who will act as a liaison to the city manager and residents. That deputy will also have an office in City Hall. None of the deputies will work out of the city's current police headquarters on 76th Avenue. How that building will be used is unclear.
"We'd love to have our own force," said Mayor Steve McFarlin following the Tuesday night vote. "But the Pinellas County sheriff has a process for the small towns that allows us to feel like we have our own force. And that's what's so good about this. That and the tremendous savings."
In total, city officials expect the move will save about $1.3 million per year. This fiscal year, the savings will be slightly less, as the contract will not kick in for several more months.
There are also no startup costs, as Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has agreed to take in almost all of the vehicles, radios and equipment the city bought for its police force.
Critics of the plan have cautioned that no amount of savings can compensate for the loss of the city's own department and the value of knowing the cop on patrol. Some, including City Commissioner Bev Garnett, initially said they would prefer to pay higher taxes than have deputies, brand new to the area, keep watch over their city.
The debate over whether to disband the department has been going on for decades. It has received more support in recent years as tax revenues declined and the recession cut into the city's tourism industry. On Nov. 6, 58 percent of voters approved a charter amendment allowing the City Commission to disband its police department.
A provision in the contract will allow members of the police force to transfer to the Sheriff's Office. They will not have to undergo the same drug tests and polygraphs to which new employees are subject. Gualtieri has said he expects a majority of the city's force will come work for him.