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Community service gets two staffers

Last year, 580 people performed court-ordered community service work pulling weeds in St. Petersburg's parks and sweeping its sidewalks. A city secretary coordinated the deal in her spare moments.

This year, nearly double the crowd will fulfill sentences in the city, and two workers in a new city department will arrange the jobs.

"We decided that if we're going to do this program, we certainly need proper supervision and channeling of energy," said Mayor David Fischer, who pushed for the creation of a $71,300-a-year Community Services staff as part of his new Sanitation Department division designed to keep the city pretty.

The enhanced community service program will let more of those convicted in Pinellas County perform their sentences within city limits, expand the kinds of jobs they can do and get the city looking neater, Fischer hopes.

Community service work is hardly new in St. Petersburg or nationally.

Former junk bond king Michael Milken was ordered to work 1,800 hours of community service for three years after his securities fraud charges. Zsa Zsa Gabor served a three-day jail sentence after failing to complete 120 hours of court-ordered community service to which she was sentenced for slapping a Beverly Hills police officer. And Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens created an anti-drugs video as a community service as part of an indecent exposure plea agreement.

For the most part, the service options in St. Petersburg have been more mundane: pulling weeds, cleaning roadways, cutting brush and picking up trash along shorelines, Fischer said.

But with an administrative assistant and a customer services clerk to coordinate the program, as approved by the City Council earlier this week, those types of jobs should expand, according to Lee Metzger, director of Leisure Services.

Still, Metzger said, assigning tasks to people who have been ordered by the court system to help out isn't the equivalent of assigning paid city staffers.

City officials will try to assign people to jobs that fit their abilities and ages, he said. Children as young as 12 have been ordered to complete community service in St. Petersburg. Supervision is essential, he said.

"That's the down side," Metzger said. "It does take a lot of support. . . You can't just assign them to go somewhere."

People assigned to community service in St. Petersburg have completed jail sentences or have been sentenced strictly to community service.

One out of three offenders in Pinellas County receives some community service sentence, usually averaging between 50 and 100 hours, according to Isiah Brown, correctional probation senior administrator for the state Department of Corrections in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

People are not assigned to non-profit agencies or to jobs that might be sensitive or risky, Brown said. "They are assigned somewhere where they do not pose a risk to the community," he said. "It has not been a problem."

St. Petersburg City Council members praised Fischer's plans to get more offenders cleaning up the city.

"I think those individuals do a tremendous job," said council member David Welch. "I will support that as long as they have the appropriate supervision."

Council Chairman Robert Stewart agreed.

"These are not folks that are going to be dangerous or be likely to commit a crime," he said. "It's a feel good thing."

Ultimately, the community services expansion carries the same risks as other initiatives pressed for in recent weeks by Fischer: higher costs.