Thursday, January 18, 2018
Politics

St. Pete Beach votes to disband Police Department

ST. PETE BEACH — Voters approved a ballot measure on Tuesday night that would allow the City Commission to disband the town's police department.

Passed with 58 percent of the vote, the measure will end decades of home-policing by the city's own small force, freeing the City Commission to contract out law enforcement to the Pinellas County Sheriff.

St. Pete Beach residents have been debating whether to dissolve their Police Department as far back as 1978. But in this town of 10,000 residents, having its own police force has always been a point of pride.

In recent years, however, city officials have tried to revive enthusiasm for the idea of switching to the sheriff as tax revenues have fallen and pension costs have grown. Doing so would save the city an estimated $1.3 million, according to City Manager Mike Bonfield. Many beach communities, such as Madeira Beach and Redington Beach, already have taken this route.

The change had the backing of the City Commission, which voted earlier this year to support disbanding the police force, as did the union that represents the 25-member force.

Recent changes to the officers' pension plan, which made it less generous and would require them to work 30 years before retiring, propelled many of them to back the switch to the sheriff. Given the choice between staying in St. Pete Beach under the new pension plan or going to work for Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who has offered them jobs, a majority of them chose the latter.

Opponents of transitioning to the Sheriff's Office have said that doing so will deprive St. Pete Beach of one of its small-town charms: police officers who know residents by name, even the law abiding ones. Some residents said they would prefer to pay higher taxes to support keeping the Police Department rather than see it lost to a cost-saving measure.

But on Election Day, the plans' supporters prevailed.

It is unclear how quickly the City Commission will act to disband the department, or what will become of the police headquarters on 76th Avenue, which opened in 1995 and cost the city $2.1 million.

In Belleair Bluffs, voters rejected an amendment to the city's charter that would have given the mayor and city commissioners another year in office.

According to unofficial results from Tuesday's election, the measure failed by a margin of 125 votes. About 55 percent of voters opposed it.

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