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Pompano Beach's experience influences Clearwater's decision on police

CLEARWATER — It can be complicated and costly to revive a police department after it has been abolished.

That's the reality Clearwater wants to avoid and another Florida city, Pompano Beach, is grappling with.

Despite the Sheriff's Office's claims it can save Clearwater nearly $11 million, city officials have indicated they have little interest in contracting with the sheriff. They think savings will be much less than promised and they're apprehensive about the permanence of such a decision.

And some, including Clearwater police Chief Tony Holloway, are pointing to what's going on in Pompano Beach as an example.

More than a decade ago, Pompano Beach, a city about the same size as Clearwater, was also promised millions in savings if it contracted with the Sheriff's Office there. Pompano Beach, which now has a population of about 104,000, disbanded its department in 1999. And for years, it seemed like a pretty good deal.

But over time that perception changed.

"Now, it looks like we could probably do it cheaper if we created a new Pompano Beach Police Department," said Pompano Commissioner Rex Hardin.

For months, Pompano threatened to end its contract with the Sheriff's Office. About two months ago, city commissioners asked city administrators to negotiate a contract with the Broward County Sheriff's Office while researching how much it will cost to implement their own department.

The city has already commissioned a few studies. Earlier this year, an estimate by Pompano staff based on the studies said the city could save $27.5 million the first decade it returned to its own department despite hefty startup costs. City Manager Dennis Beach thinks those numbers are conservative.

In a recent offer, the Sheriff's Office said it could provide Pompano with 309 law enforcement personnel, including 233 sworn officers for $37.25 million. The city estimates that it can provide 326 positions, with 240 sworn officers, for around $34 million or $35 million.

The Broward County Sheriff's Office has disputed the city's findings and said previous studies showing big savings to restart the department are not credible.

Jim Leljedal, the Sheriff's Office's director of media relations, refused to discuss specifics.

"We're in negotiations and I'm not going there," Leljedal said.

Pompano officials, even those who think they'll save money restarting the force, aren't confident with the numbers in past studies. They've asked for more research.

"Nobody can come up with a good answer as to what has happened in 10 years to explain how this thing could have gotten flopped around," Hardin said.

One factor, according to officials, is Broward County's push to make sure contract cities pay their full share for services provided by the Sheriff's Office.

"Everyone is in dire straits of budgeting," said Mayor Fisher. "Counties are trying to pass on costs to municipalities."

In recent years, Broward County auditors reports said the Sheriff's Office wasn't charging Pompano Beach and the 13 cities it contracts with the full cost of overhead and retiree health care expenses.

Beach said the Sheriff's Office has started to pass on those costs to Pompano.

"That's what's driven the cost up," he said.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats said the cities he contracts with are already paying the full cost of the services he provides.

"Here in Pinellas County, they are paying their fair share," Coats said.

At Clearwater's City Council's work session Monday, Holloway brought up Pompano Beach and the millions it expects to pay to restart a police force.

Officials were aware of Pompano's situation because the Fraternal Order of Police unit that represents Clearwater's sergeants and lieutenants delivered information about Pompano to City Hall last week.

Holloway said a decision to disband his department would be irreversible because it would be too expensive to ever start up again. "Once we go down this road and cross over this bridge, blow it up," Holloway told the City Council. "I know you've seen some information from Pompano Beach, where they're trying to start a police department."

If Pompano re-created its department, the city could spend from $10 million to $15 million, according to estimates.

City staff thinks Pompano can save nearly $6.8 million over the first five years even with the startup costs. But Pompano commissioners want to know precisely what startup costs will be and how soon savings will pan out.

"When are you really going to see those savings?" said Mayor Lamar Fisher.

Most in Pompano are pleased with the service provided by the Broward County Sheriff's Office, officials say. So, despite yet another study, Beach thinks his city will likely reach a deal with the sheriff within a month or so.

"What's financially prudent isn't always what the community wants or what the political element will endure or accept," Beach said.

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Pompano Beach's experience influences Clearwater's decision on police 05/18/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 8:56pm]

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