LARGO — City Commissioner Curtis Holmes was riding his bike a few weeks ago when a question popped into his head: Could Largo police patrol neighboring cities and charge less than the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office?
The question was spurred by news Holmes had heard about Belleair Shore, the tiny beachfront town that will see its contract with the Sheriff's Office increase 57 percent from 2012 to 2013.
Largo and Belleair Shore aren't adjacent. Belleair Bluffs and Belleair Beach stand between them. But, Holmes thought, if Largo expanded police service to Belleair Bluffs and Belleair Beach, perhaps Belleair Shore would be interested.
At the City Commission's June 5 meeting, Holmes asked staff to research the logistics of offering police contracts to Belleair Bluffs, Belleair Beach, Indian Rocks Beach and Belleair Shore. A staff answer should be ready in August, according to a recent report by City Manager Mac Craig.
Holmes says he's confident Largo can underbid the Sheriff's Office in at least one of those cities. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is skeptical.
Regardless, Gualtieri says state law would prevent Largo from patrolling Belleair Shore. A 2011 opinion by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi echoes Gualtieri's interpretation of the law: A city can only offer police services to adjoining cities, not to other nearby cities whose borders it does not touch.
Largo police Chief John Carroll is in favor of exploring offering his force to adjoining cities like Belleair Bluffs and Indian Rocks Beach for a fee, but emphasized he's not trying to pick a fight with the Sheriff's Office.
"I'm not going to go out and try to drum up interest or take business away from the Sheriff's Office," Carroll said. "I think it's worthy of discussion."
Carroll admitted, though, that he probably can't beat the Sheriff's Office's prices, even in Belleair Bluffs, where Largo may soon have a fire station that could be a cheap home for a police substation. (Largo provides fire protection for Belleair Bluffs, and is discussing a new fire station there.)
The Sheriff's Office will police Belleair Bluffs for $451,201 in 2013, up from $447,551 in 2012.
"I don't think we could give them the same hours for (that price)," Carroll said. "That's not to say we couldn't come up with some kind of hybrid model."
Mayors at the cities in this discussion, meanwhile, all said versions of the same thing: If Largo can offer us the same service at a better price, we're interested. If not, we're not.
"There were rumors that, 'Oh my god, the sheriff's out of money, they're going to be raising all the towns 20 or 30 percent,' " said Belleair Bluffs Mayor Chris Arbutine Sr.
The rumors were unfounded, though. The contract for Belleair Bluffs went up less than 1 percent.
"There were no major increases, and everybody seems to be extremely happy with the services that are provided, so we're fine," Arbutine said.
The only city near Largo that did see a big increase in its police cost was Belleair Shore. Updated population figures caused the Sheriff's Office to increase its price from $20,042 to $31,435, according to Gualtieri. He speculated that the population number hadn't been updated for several years, causing a one-year jump from 72 to 109 residents when the official 2010 U.S. Census numbers became available earlier this year.
The Sheriff's Office patrols 12 cities in Pinellas, as well as the unincorporated areas. Those cities are free to shop around, Gualtieri said, but he doubts they'll find a better deal.
"We provide great services to the cities we contract with," he said. "But I'm not getting involved in a battle with anyone over it."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or [email protected]