Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats' offer to take over policing in Clearwater at a savings of more than $10 million a year makes it tough for city officials facing a large budget deficit to say no. No matter the outcome of tonight's City Council vote, this is the sort of ambitious consolidation of services that all Tampa Bay governments ought to seriously consider to save money, improve efficiency and avoid deeper spending cuts.
Clearwater City Council members set off shock waves when they asked Coats for a proposal. Though the sheriff's office provides law enforcement under contract to half of Pinellas' 24 cities, most of those cities are small. Clearwater is the second-largest city in the county, with a population of more than 110,000 and an accredited police department with almost 400 employees. The agency is known for its professionalism and creativity in handling complex challenges that include a popular tourist beach, the Church of Scientology and human trafficking.
Coats' proposal was unexpectedly appealing. He would keep the same number of officers and detectives and guarantee the same level of services, at a savings to the city of $10.8 million a year. The sheriff said the savings would come from reducing an excess of city police supervisors and consolidating administrative and dispatch functions with his agency.
Clearwater officials were skeptical, but they couldn't find any significant discontent with the sheriff's services in the cities that already contract with him. To his credit, Coats has done a good job in those cities and kept his promises to adjust manpower and services to meet each city's needs.
Yet despite the opportunity for savings and Coats' good record, Clearwater City Council members appear poised to reject his offer. Some are skittish because the decision would be so permanent. They also are concerned about giving up any authority over law enforcement in their own boundaries and legitimately worried that future sheriffs might not match Coats' record or fulfill his promises.
The lesson here is that there should be no sacred cows when local governments are searching for ways to save dollars. Old assumptions and old ways of doing things need a new look. These are the same sorts of discussions that should be held about fire departments, emergency medical services and other local government functions that can operate more efficiently.
Even if Clearwater decides against contracting with the sheriff this time, it has gained valuable information from the exercise. It has discovered its police department may have too many supervisors. It has documented there are real savings attached to consolidating administrative and dispatch services with other police agencies.
And it has learned that there is a price to pay — a big one — for the flexibility of keeping its own police department.