ST. PETE BEACH — Switching to the Sheriff's Office for law enforcement has the support of the union that represents the city's police officers.
Last week, 14 members of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 43 voted to support a November referendum, that if passed by residents, would give the City Commission the power to disband the 55-year-old Police Department and contract with the sheriff.
"None of the men and women of the St. Pete Beach Police Department want to see the end of the department. However, after much research and investigation, we recognize that this opportunity is mutually beneficial for the city, the citizens and the employees," union representative Sgt. Bruce Johnson said in a news release issued by the Fraternal Order of Police.
Johnson said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri "assured us" that all qualified department employees, both officers and civilians, "will be given employment with his agency."
He also noted that the Sheriff's Office will provide better training, equipment and criminal investigations than are possible with the local department.
The police officers' vote to support the switch was not unanimous, with nine members opposed to the change and three members not voting, according to St. Pete Beach police Sgt. Christopher M. Centofanti.
"Some of our people are hoping the citizens will not vote to change the city charter, but our younger members are not happy with the recent changes to their pension benefits,'' Centofanti said.
Last month, the City Commission voted to change the retirement plans it offers all employees, including police, to save about $20 million in pension costs.
"If the pension had not been changed, I believe in my heart that the vote would have been much different," said Centofanti, who today completes 20 years of service with the department.
Centofanti said a meeting between Gualtieri and the union members reassured many about their career potential with the Sheriff's Office.
Whoever decides to transfer to the Sheriff's Office must go through an orientation and retraining period before being eligible for assignment back to St. Pete Beach.
If the switch is made, the city will decide how many deputies it wants patrolling the streets and what extra services will be provided — handling traffic and accidents, enforcing noise ordinances, investigating burglaries, domestic abuse and other violent crimes, and so forth.
All of the Sheriff's Office special investigations units would be available to the city, including SWAT, marine and canine patrols, Gualtieri said.
If the Police Department is closed, the annual operational costs will be reduced by about $2.5 million, the difference between the police budget and the cost to contract with the Sheriff's Office.
The current police budget is $4.56 million.
In May, City Manager Mike Bonfield told the commission that if the department were closed, the city could save additional money if it moved its offices from City Hall on Corey Avenue to the police building at 200 76th Ave.
The police building opened in 1995 and would provide more and less costly space for city operations, Bonfield said.
The police building's $2.1 million construction cost, paid through a special property tax levy, will be paid off by the end of next year.
City Hall could be "repurposed" for private use as the Corey Avenue area is redeveloped, providing "significant financial relief" to the city, Bonfield said at the time.
The commission has made no decision about that option.