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St. Pete Beach police torn on what they hope Nov. 6 vote will be

ST. PETE BEACH — The police station that watches over this sleepy town of 10,000 was built as if to reassure residents that nothing terrible could ever happen here.

Three stories tall with sea foam green walls and bright yellow railings, the building cost the city $2.1 million. But come Election Day on Nov. 6, the police force it houses could be voted out of existence.

For this small seaside town, having its own Police Department has always been a declaration of independence.

But it is also a financial burden — one that has dragged St. Pete Beach residents into the middle of an emotional debate over whether to keep their hometown force. The alternative, which has been contemplated as far back as 1978, is to pay the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for protection.

Doing so would save the city an estimated $1.3 million after several years of declining tax revenue. The City Commission had to raise tax rates this year to close a budget hole.

The Sheriff's Office also would give the city access to specialized units for marine patrols, murder investigations and gang monitoring.

"We're a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico" with a small force, said police Sgt. Chris Centofanti, a 20-year department veteran. "The reality of that is, it's cute, it looks nice on postcards, but it has its limitations."

The St. Pete Beach Police Department has always been small, but the past few years of budget cuts have winnowed it down further. Today, the 25-member department has five sergeants and 17 officers. Its two detectives and one captain handle everything from harassing phone calls to the occasional homicide.

The department owns one boat and one motorcycle. When it needs to analyze crime scene evidence or transport a prisoner to the county jail, it calls the sheriff.

Yet the department's supporters point out that there are small tasks the St. Pete Beach officers perform that sheriff's deputies might not do as readily.

Police Chief David Romine said that when his officers encounter a lost dog, they bring it to the police station, not Animal Services. In the station's downstairs are cages and dog food, enough to content a pet until its owner arrives.

"The vast majority of the people of this community have never had to call for police service," Romine said. "They really don't have a handle on the level of service the agency like this provides."

Romine thinks it is important for a city, however small, to maintain its own police force. He calculated that in three months, 107 people walked into the police headquarters on 76th Avenue to report an incident.

City Manager Mike Bonfield said that under the sheriff, a community police officer and a deputy would have offices at City Hall, where residents could meet with them.

"But they wouldn't necessarily be there from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week," he said.

The city doesn't know what it would do with the station, which was built in 1995.

Most of the calls that come into the St. Pete Beach Police Department are tourism-related — restaurant patrons who walk away without paying, vacationing couples who have a few drinks and turn combative, and regular barroom brawlers.

After 20 years on the force, Centofanti can easily distinguish between the night shift security guard at the Tradewinds hotel and a burglar, a skill someone new to the area might not have.

Yet Centofanti and his colleagues are surprisingly unsentimental about the chance their department will be disbanded.

"To the residents, this is an emotional decision," he said. "To the cops, it's an economic issue."

If voters decide to keep the department intact, the city and police union have already agreed to a less generous pension plan that has prompted officers to dust off their resumes.

Instead of working 25 years and receiving a pension that's 80 percent of their final salary, they would be required to work 30 years. At the end, they would get about 37 percent of their final pay and whatever they have contributed to a 401(k)-like plan.

Like many in his position, Bruce Johnson, a 10-year veteran, would prefer to work for Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The sheriff's pension plan is far better, he said, and he and the other officers would all be offered jobs there if voters close their department.

"But now I have to work until I'm 60 years old," he said. "Carrying a gun, jumping fences, getting into bar fights … The chances of me staying here until I hit 30 years are very, very slim."

The issue has divided officers with decades of experience from new employees. When it came time for them to vote on disbanding the department, 14 approved it, nine voted no.

Centofanti, who is five years away from retirement, was among the no's. It's in his financial interest to stay under the new pension plan and cash out soon. Still, he worries what will happen to the department if voters refuse to close it. Young officers will look elsewhere, he predicted, and job applicants will dwindle.

His advice to St. Pete Beach taxpayers: "If you're going to keep it, fund it. Fund it properly. And if you don't have the money, then get rid of it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

St. Pete Beach police torn on what they hope Nov. 6 vote will be 10/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 5:41pm]

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