ST. PETE BEACH — It's official. Voters in November will decide whether to keep their city-run Police Department.
City commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to put a referendum question on the ballot in a self-described effort to be fiscally responsible.
"This is an exercise about the budget. It is an opportunity to save money," Commissioner Jim Parent explained.
The $1.4 million in savings of taxpayer money would occur only if the referendum passes and then only if the commission decides to disband the Police Department and contract with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Two weeks ago, many residents complained that they were confused about the wording of the referendum and were not sure what a "yes" or "no" vote would mean.
City attorneys reworded the ballot question in an attempt to make its purpose clear.
Here is the actual ballot language:
"Charter Section 4.06 requires the St. Pete Beach Police Department to be established as a Charter Department and prohibits transfer of law enforcement activity by contract or any other process to any department or employee not administered by the City Manager. Repeal of this section will allow the City to transfer law enforcement activity to an outside agency by contract or other process. Shall Charter Section 4.06 be repealed?"
If voters check the "yes" box on their ballots they will be voting to allow the commission to close the Police Department.
Choosing "no" would maintain charter protection for the department and the commission would be unable to contract with the Sheriff's Office.
This year, even more than in past years, the city is facing a major revenue shortfall that will force substantial cuts or increases in property taxes.
Because the city's fiscal year begins in October and the budget must be approved before then, the November referendum will not have an immediate effect on next year's property taxes.
Commissioners are already leaning toward a 25 percent tax increase, a choice several residents said they would agree to in order to save the local police force.
Closing the Police Department "is the wrong thing to do, folks," said resident Rick Falkenstein, who predicted voters would opt to keep their department.
"You need to explain to people that if want to keep their police force you will have to raise taxes," resident Rosemary Manning said. "People need to understand that you get what you pay for."
Manning said she moved to the city years ago largely because it had its own Police Department and hoped that it would remain.
"We are going to provide a choice," said Mayor Steve McFarlin. "Due to the significant savings, we have an obligation to take this forward. If people are willing to pay for having their own Police Department, so be it."
The city plans to have a series of workshops before the election to explain how switching to the Sheriff's Office would or would not change law enforcement in the city.
If the switch is made, the city will be able to decide how many deputies it wants patrolling the streets and what extra services would be provided — handling traffic and accidents, investigating burglaries and violent crimes, enforcing noise ordinances and so forth.
All of the Sheriff's Office special investigations units would be available to the city, including SWAT, marine and canine patrols, according to Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. The deputies exclusively assigned to the city will likely serve in the city for many years, he said.
Gualtieri has said he is willing to speak at commission workshops and neighborhood meetings before the referendum.
"At end of day in November," said Commissioner Bev Garnett, "if we keep our Police Department, I think Chief (David) Romine and all those men and women are going to feel so much better because next year it is not going to come up on the chopping block again."