CLEARWATER — This year, Clearwater was tempted to save millions by disbanding its police force and hiring the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to fight crime instead.
City leaders decided against it, partly because many Clearwater residents were opposed to such a dramatic and irreversible move.
But officials never ruled out the possibility of closing Clearwater's police dispatch center and merging it with the sheriff's.
Now that idea is back on the table. Sheriff Jim Coats is proposing taking over Clearwater's police communications, which he says would save the city $1.8 million a year. The merger would allow the city to cut about 44 jobs, while Coats would hire 20 more employees to handle the increased workload at the sheriff's communications center.
However, it's not that simple from Clearwater's point of view.
For one thing, Clearwater is also looking into the possibility of merging its dispatch center with that of another city, such as Largo.
For another thing, the Sheriff's Office is also talking to Pinellas officials about consolidating the county's multilayered dispatch system, which has separate call centers for medical care and law enforcement.
"We're going to take our time and try and make sense out of what the sheriff is proposing," said Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne. "We may be better off having other cities consolidate with us, rather than going with the county."
Cash-strapped Clearwater is under pressure to cut costs. For example, the city recently disabled the lights at 46 outdoor tennis courts to save just $20,000 a year in power bills.
That's why the police communications center remains a target for budget cuts. Clearwater already contracts with the Sheriff's Office to process crime scenes, store evidence and transport prisoners to jail.
"Everything else at the Police Department is off the table, but we told everybody that we were going to look at the comm center for potential savings," said Mayor Frank Hibbard. "We believe that next year we're still going to have budgetary issues."
He added: "That being said, the issue with the radio system conversion is not an easy one."
And that's the other complicating factor. Pinellas sheriff's deputies use Motorola radios, while Clearwater police officers use Harris radios with different frequencies. The Sheriff's Office says every law enforcement agency in the county except for Clearwater uses Motorola.
By 2013, the federal government will require all law enforcement and emergency workers to be able to communicate by radio from city to city. That may require Clearwater to buy new radios or install special software.
If Clearwater were to merge communications systems with the Sheriff's Office, deputies say the city could avoid spending an estimated $3.1 million to upgrade its radios to comply with the federal regulations.
"Clearwater is the only agency in the county that's not on the Motorola system," said Pinellas Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri. "If they stay with the Harris system, it would require a significant upgrade."
As Clearwater sorts through its options, the City Council isn't scheduled to discuss this issue any time soon.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.