Clearwater City Manager Bill Horne is right to take a cautious approach to the idea of consolidating the city's police dispatch operation with law enforcement dispatching in another city or the county. Public safety operations in Pinellas County are in flux now, and the landscape could look different in a few months.
Sheriff Jim Coats has proposed taking over Clearwater's police dispatching at a savings of $1.8 million to the city, which could eliminate 44 positions from the city's bottom line. The sheriff would boost his communications center staff by 20 people to handle the additional duties.
The city also is mulling the alternative of merging its dispatch operation with another city's, such as Largo's.
Horne said city officials will "take our time and try and make sense" out of the sheriff's proposal and other options.
While it is smart not to rush to make a decision that could have long-term consequences, two things are known now:
• Given the state of the economy and a continuing decline in property values, the city will need to make more cuts in its budget next year and must consider all options.
• Clearwater's police officers need to be a part of the radio network that other departments use, which may require an investment in new equipment or a consolidation with another agency, or both.
The Clearwater Police Department is the only police agency in Pinellas not using Motorola radios. Its officers communicate on different frequencies from other officers. The federal government is requiring all public safety officers to be able to communicate by radio city-to-city by 2013. The ability to communicate by radio in an emergency is an important national security goal.
Meanwhile, Pinellas local governments are considering changes in the countywide emergency medical services. And another tough budget year in 2011 could force more consolidations in EMS, police and fire services. With each year that passes, it becomes more difficult for the cities and county to pay for the duplicative public safety operations that exist today.
In this economic environment, it doesn't make sense for police departments to have their own dispatching operation and pay the cost of facilities, equipment, dispatchers, training and administration if combining those efforts could lead to efficiencies without risking the public's safety. But those decisions are best made after careful research and deliberation.