Saturday, January 20, 2018
Politics

St. Pete Beach will decide on changing charter with regard to police force

Along with the 11 state constitutional amendments on the lengthy Nov. 6 ballot, residents of St. Pete Beach will have another issue to consider.

Placed on the ballot by the City Commission, a referendum question asks voters if they support amending the city's charter to allow for the dissolution of the St. Pete Beach Police Department.

Currently, language in the charter requires St. Pete Beach to run its own Police Department, and bars the commission from transferring law enforcement responsibilities to anyone else.

Because of falling tax revenue and mounting pension costs, the City Commission would like to do just that: disband the Police Department and contract with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The switch would save an estimated $1.3 million, according to City Manager Mike Bonfield.

In handing responsibility for law enforcement to the sheriff, the city would be following in the steps of other beach communities such as Madeira Beach, Redington Beach and Belleair Beach.

Like other small cities with their own police forces, St. Pete Beach already contracts with the Sheriff's Office for certain specialized tasks, such as evidence collection. Should the city disband its own force, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has said that he would hire all "qualified" St. Pete Beach Police Department staff.

For this reason — and because the City Commission recently reduced police officers' pensions — a majority of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 43 supports the change. Advocates such as Mayor Steve McFarlin have argued that for the city to maintain its own force, it would be adhering to an "outdated business model" that it can't afford. A contract with the sheriff would also give the commission the power to shrink or expand the number of deputies based on the city's population, which explodes during tourist season.

Opponents of dissolving the Police Department say they are concerned that St. Pete Beach, which is home to roughly 10,000 people, would lose its small-town character and police officers who know the area well. They worry that sheriff's deputies would not perform the neighborly tasks they have come to expect, such as checking on street lights or coaxing cats out of trees.

At a meeting in September, Commissioner Bev Garnett said she would prefer to pay higher taxes to support the city's own Police Department.

"I like our Police Department, I like having them here, and I, too, can afford having them," she said.

If St. Pete Beach residents vote down the measure, the City Commission has a back-up plan. In September, the group raised the tax rate by 15 percent for fiscal year 2013, giving them an additional $800,000 to pay for the Police Department.

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