LEALMAN — A drug dealer who has made life miserable for residents of a Lealman Heights neighborhood will soon be gone — if everything goes right.
That's the promise Pinellas County sheriff's deputies made during Wednesday's meeting of the Lealman Community Association.
The meeting topic — crime in the unincorporated Lealman area — brought out Sheriff Jim Coats and several of his command staff to assure residents that law enforcement in the area is not being neglected despite budget constraints.
During the past few years, Coats has been proactive in the area, running stings and sweeps designed to rid Lealman of drug dealers and hookers. But on June 25, several residents of a neighborhood between 34th and 37th streets N and 40th and 54th avenues N attended an LCA board meeting.
They complained that, for the past three years, their neighborhood had been plagued by drug dealers and hookers to such an extent that they would not allow their children to play outdoors. They said they had complained to the Sheriff's Office but had gotten no relief.
"We had a pretty serious meeting the other night," Deputy Dan Doherty, the Lealman area's community policing officer, told the LCA audience on Wednesday.
Many times, Doherty said, deputies know of the criminal activity but can't say anything because undercover investigations are in progress and talking about them could jeopardize officers' lives as well as the operation.
But because of the complaints, Doherty said he had gotten permission from the department's drug task force to "take the gloves off" to get the dealers out of the neighborhood.
Doherty said the dealers live in a rental house, whose owner lives in Greece. Doherty said he had contacted the owner and gotten him to promise to evict his tenants, a process that should take about a month.
"Hopefully, in the next 30 days, they'll be out of your neighborhood and gone forever," Doherty said.
Doherty also pledged that deputies would start a Crime Watch program in that neighborhood to help ensure that the area would stay as free of crime as possible.
Coats addressed the group later in the evening, referring to the $26-million cut to his budget as a result of Amendment 1 and the lowered property valuations.
"We're really faced with some very serious budget challenges," Coats said. Those challenges tend to hit personnel because that is the largest part of his budget.
"We're ramping down instead of ramping up," he said.
Despite that, Coats said deputies have made more than 700 arrests in the past year in the Lealman area alone. "We are responsive," he said.
Part of the sheriff's ramping down is the reduction in forces for the community police officer program.
At one point, Coats planned to entirely eliminate the program, but pleas from the Lealman and other unincorporated areas changed his mind.
Each area got to keep one CPO. In Lealman's case, that officer is Doherty, a popular figure in the area. But Doherty is losing his partner, Jeremy Dressback, who attended his final LCA meeting Wednesday.
John Pikramenos, who will be Coats' opponent in the November election if he survives the Democratic primary, praised Doherty and Dressback.
"You are very lucky" to have Doherty, he said. Members of the audience responded, "We know that. We know that."
Pikramenos added, "You should be sorry you're losing" Dressback. Audience members murmured, "We are."
Also attending the meeting was Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who promised that the commission will try to help Coats find some funding to plump his budget and help lessen the impact of the cutbacks.
Welch promised to return to discuss budget issues in more detail at the LCA's August meeting.