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Pinellas Park police feel budget pinch

PINELLAS PARK — Community policing and crime prevention are the latest victims of the budget crunch for this city.

There have been no layoffs, but the Pinellas Park Police Department is down seven officers, from its normal contingent of 102 to 95, as a way to meet expected reductions in property tax revenues. The number was decided during discussions between police Chief Dorene Thomas and City Manager Mike Gustafson.

"They feel that's a good number … 95 is certainly a number we can work with at this point," police spokesman Sandy Forseth said. "But we did lose a little bit of capability."

One of those losses was the city's crime prevention officer, a position held until the past few weeks by Donna Saxer. When Saxer was moved out of the position as a part of the department's normal rotation, it was left unfilled.

That means, for example, that neighborhoods that want to establish a crime watch area may not be able to do so because the department can't spare anyone to help, Forseth said. Existing neighborhood watch groups will continue.

The community outreach that was part of Saxer's job may also go undone.

Those include responsibilities for the department's participation in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life and other such activities. Forseth said the department's participation in those will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Also gone are the bicycle and motorcycle units. The goal, Forseth said, was to make sure as many officers were in the patrol unit as possible.

Forseth said the department is looking for other ways to fund the seven officers. One possibility, he said, is a federal grant. If the department receives it, then one or more of those seven positions could be filled.

Although the city's leaders have maintained they have the budget crunch under control, this is not the first indication that belt-tightening is taking place behind closed doors.

Last November, firefighters complained that staffing had gotten so low that expensive trucks were left sitting much of the time.

At the time, the city said primary response vehicles were not affected and that, in any case, nearby departments would back up Pinellas Park's firefighters and supply needed equipment under the countywide mutual aid agreement.

Then in January, officials said they expected a $2 million to $3 million shortfall for the 2009-10 fiscal year.

But in February, the city seemed to do an about-face when it came to granting raises to firefighters. The council voted to give them guaranteed overall raises of about 3 percent each of the next three years.

Now police officers will have their turn.

Their union is negotiating a new contract with city officials, and some officers have complained that they are underpaid compared to law enforcement personnel in other Pinellas municipalities.

Reach Anne Lindberg at alindberg@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8450.

Pinellas Park police feel budget pinch 06/13/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 4:30am]
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