TREASURE ISLAND — City leaders once again will explore whether eliminating the city's Police Department and relying on policing from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office is a cost-saving measure they want to take.
In a 3-2 vote Tuesday, commissioners decided to investigate how much money the city could save by outsourcing its police services. In 2005, the city did a similar exercise and decided to keep its department.
But Commissioner Tim Ramsberger said the city should take another look: The city needs infrastructure improvements without new revenue streams.
"We should take advantage of every opportunity to investigate ways to save money," he said. "There is increasing interest by our citizens to see what this would look like."
Commissioners Phil Collins and Carol Coward also voted in favor of looking at possible cost savings and said voters should be the ultimate decisionmakers.
The city's charter requires that both the City Commission and voters through a referendum election would have to approve eliminating the Police Department.
"I am confident that the public supports the Police Department, but we need to give residents the opportunity to vote," Collins said.
"It is up to us to do our due diligence, but I'm torn," she said. "We don't want to reduce our service."
Commissioner Alan Bildz and Mayor Bob Minning voted against measure, with Bildz calling it "a mistake, an exercise in futility."
Minning said he hated to see what he thinks will be a divisive issue being a focal point of attention.
"We don't need another issue to divide our city," he said.
Yet supporters of switching to the Sheriff's Office for policing, as other beachfront communities such as St. Pete Beach and Madeira Beach have done, argued the city could save money.
Mitchell Shenkman, who said he had collected 171 signatures on a petition asking to study a transfer of services, said the city should look at the numbers. He said St. Pete Beach had saved $1.7 million a year by eliminating its Police Department.
"All I want to see is the residents of Treasure Island becoming informed on the issue," he said.
Police Chief Tim Casey urged commissioners to keep his department, which he said is the only way residents will continue to retain the level of services they are used to, from an active marine patrol to pet and bike registration.
"We don't have an excessive operating budget," said Casey, who said the department has six sworn officers on patrol during the day and up to five on nights and weekends.
Last summer, the city — at the urging of Casey — switched its police communication operations to the Sheriff's Office at a savings of $300,000.
City Manager Reid Silverboard warned commissioners that extensive staff time would be needed to fully vet the issue. When he was city manager in Belleair Beach, Silverboard said he went through a similar process that entailed coming up with a complete inventory and condition report along with numerous meetings with the Sheriff's Office.
"It took four staff members four to six weeks to gather the data and look at the number of proposals we had to match," Silverboard said.
But Ramsberger said exploring the issue will allow the city to decide how financially prudent a switch to using sheriff's services would be.
Former Mayor Julian Fant reminded commissioners that "the best law enforcement available is that closest to the citizens."
"Will the sheriff's department do regular patrols in our neighborhoods? Will they give a three-minute response time?" Fant asked. "Are we cutting corners at the expense of citizens in a world becoming increasingly violent?"