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Badge is county's but feeling is hometown

The Gem Village neighborhood was in turmoil last spring.

Several homes had been burglarized. Residents complained that a teen gang was hanging out in one house and disrupting the peace. Someone shot into another house.

Mayor Dottie Reeder showed up at City Hall to meet, she thought, with two or three Gem Village representatives. She found a room filled with about 100 angry, scared residents.

"They could have crucified me," Reeder said.

Reeder turned for help to the police officer who had been dealing with the Gem Village situation, the person some residents would later hug and thank for her efforts to return peace to the neighborhood.

It didn't matter, Reeder said, that Tobi Nobbs wore a Pinellas County sheriff's uniform. For Gem Village _ and for Reeder _ Nobbs was Seminole's police officer.

She was, Reeder said, "right by my side as if (she) were the city police department."

In that situation it was clear, Reeder said, that hiring police protection from the Pinellas County sheriff doesn't preclude having "hometown" police officers.

"You can't get any more hometown than that, even with your own police force," Reeder said.

Seminole's experience may give comfort to those critics in Belleair Beach and Dunedin who worry that giving up their local police forces may mean giving up personal attention.

On Saturday, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office became the police agency for Belleair Bluffs, which had had its own force of seven. On Oct. 1, the sheriff will take over policing in Dunedin, which has a force of 54 officers and 38 civilians.

Last year, the sheriff took over policing in Indian Rocks Beach.

Seminole was the first Pinellas city to hire the sheriff as its police force. The sheriff is the only police force the city ever had.

Former Mayor Holland Mangum said better police protection was one of the things residents were looking for when they formed the city in 1970, but the new city didn't plan to start its own department.

Its founders considered hiring the Wackenhut Corp., a private security service, to patrol the city. Then, Mangum said, the Sheriff's Office agreed to provide its services.

Reeder said she thinks it has been good for the city, which has fewer than 10,000 residents.

Seminole next year will spend about $432,000 for police protection from the sheriff, about 11 percent of its total budget. For that money, Seminole is patrolled by one to four deputies at all times. It also has access to all the sheriff's equipment and special departments.

Without a contract with the sheriff's department, the city "would be lucky to get a couple of police walking the street," Reeder said. "Why have something less efficient, less effective and less valuable when we can go out and lease the best?"

Nobbs, the deputy who worked closely with Gem Village, has been assigned to Seminole for about two years. She has seen that when Seminole residents call for help, it's usually because of vandalism, speeding and personal disputes.

That's why Nobbs said she has made it a priority to get to know the city's rules on things like fence setbacks and building code violations.

"We go out on neighbor complaints all the time, and I never had the answer. I was tired of saying, "I don't have the answer,'

" she said. So she started talking with the building department.

Now, she said, she knows the answers, and she doesn't think the people she deals with feel so frustrated.

"I can say, "This is what the building code is for this. If you want further information, you can call City Hall,' " Nobbs said. "If we come out there uninformed, what good are we?"

Nobbs said she doesn't think the people she deals with daily care that the patch on her uniform says Pinellas County Sheriff instead of Seminole City Police.

"I don't think the people look at the department. They look at how the officer treats them as a person," she said. "I don't think it matters what department you work for."

What mattered to Ursula Woolard last April was how quickly a law enforcement officer arrived when someone was shooting into a Gem Village house.

Woolard, who had lived in the neighborhood only a few months, heard the shots and timed the response.

A deputy arrived in three minutes.

"The sheriff's department's coverage is more than excellent," she said.

Woolard, who organized Gem Village's Neighborhood Watch, worked with Nobbs as she tried to move the disruptive family. Another sheriff's representative helped her with the Neighborhood Watch organization and helped her put Watch signs around Gem Village.

Two weeks ago, Woolard called the sheriff to complain about speeders violating the 30-mph limit in the neighborhood.

Three days later, the patrols were in place.

"I asked, and they do it," Woolard said. "I just can't imagine (any other) police being better. I wouldn't trade them right now if I had a choice."