ST. PETE BEACH — Whether the city should disband its Police Department will be up to voters on Nov. 6. But on Tuesday night, the City Commission lent its support to the plan.
The city wants to replace its police force — and the burden of its pension costs — by contracting with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The switch would save an estimated $1.3 million.
If voters reject the referendum that would allow the dissolution, the commission has approved raising the tax rate by about 15 percent. This would raise roughly $800,000 in additional revenue needed to help pay for the Police Department.
St. Pete Beach Mayor Steve McFarlin said he could find no reason for the city to maintain its own police force. "We're not talking about a huge entity," he said, "we're talking about a group of 25 people."
He stressed the move had nothing to do with the department's quality of work. "We've got a 50-year-old business model that we're sitting here paying a tremendous amount of money for," he said.
Other beach communities have gone the same route, including Madeira Beach, Redington Beach, North Redington Beach, Indian Rocks Beach, Belleair Beach, Belleair Shore and Belleair Bluffs.
St. Pete Beach Commissioner Bev Garnett said she would prefer to keep the department as it is and pay higher taxes to support it. "I like our police department, I like having them here, and I too can afford having them," she said.
Though it would seem likely that employees of the Police Department would protest the move, assurances from Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri that he will give jobs to qualified officers and civilians have quieted much of the criticism.
Earlier this month, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 43, the union that represents officers in St. Pete Beach, endorsed the plan.
Under the proposed contract, police officers who now patrol the city and its many hotels and motels would not keep their beats. Instead, they would go through a training and orientation period and receive new assignments.
The contract with the sheriff would allow St. Pete Beach to decide how many deputies to have on patrol, a level of flexibility attractive to a city that is flooded with tourists for part of the year but empties out during the summer.