The last St. Pete Beach police cruiser to patrol the city's streets will take the midnight shift on Jan. 5. Come morning, the keys to that car will belong to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
On Jan. 6, the beach town's department will officially no longer exist and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri will take over law enforcement duties, a move expected to save the city $1.3 million next year.
In this town of 10,000 residents, many opposed the move, saying they would prefer to pay higher taxes to keep the department intact and independent. Though many other beach towns pay the sheriff for protection, residents here worried that with sheriff's deputies would come anonymity and less eagerness to check on broken streetlights and lift cats from trees.
But ultimately, 58 percent of voters approved a measure allowing the City Commission to dismantle the force, a decision that had the support of the union that represents the officers, though not the police chief.
"I'm disappointed," said St. Pete Beach police Chief David Romine, who at 62 has technically already retired from the department but continues to work there.
"I didn't really know which way that vote was going to go, but I thought it was going to be very close."
Gualtieri said he expects the City Commission will discuss and vote on the final contract on Tuesday. With the exception of a special provision that lets officers close to retirement stay in the city's pension plan, it is the same contract used by other beach towns, such as Madeira Beach and Redington Beach.
If the commission signs off on the contract, Gualtieri said he will bring 21 people to the barrier island: 14 deputies, five sergeants, one detective and one community policing deputy, who will act as a liaison to the city manager and residents.
That is a slightly smaller force than exists now. According to Gualtieri, the St. Pete Beach Police Department has 24 officers, a captain, a chief, as well as dispatchers and other nonsworn staff. He has offered them all jobs.
"I feel very strongly that these individuals and their families shouldn't suffer or be in a bad situation because of a tough decision the city needed to make for fiscal reasons," Gualtieri said.
Romine said he expects most of his staff will accept the invitation. He is still considering his next move.
To expedite the transition, Gualtieri said he is waiving the usual background checks that job candidates typically go through before becoming deputies. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement requires him to take the officers' fingerprints, but he said he sees no need to do drug tests or polygraphs of people who were already examined before becoming police officers.
St. Pete Beach officers who do take jobs with the Sheriff's Office will go through an orientation program and expedited field training before being assigned to different parts of the county. None of them will return to St. Pete Beach immediately, the sheriff said, but they can request to come back.
"They need to assimilate into our organization," Gualtieri said. "And some of them may not want to go back there. They're going to find other opportunities. It's a big county."
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.