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Pinellas Park asks Justice for help so it can keep grant

(ran South, West editions)

Justice Department officials have agreed to meet with city representatives who are trying to keep $250,000 the federal government says the city misused.

The quarter-million dollars is part of a three-year federal grant to hire new officers for Pinellas Park's community policing program.

Federal auditors have said the city used the money not to fund new jobs but to pay officers who were hired before the grant was received.

Pinellas Park police Chief David Milchan set up the meeting last week with Joe Braun, the head of the grant program, while both were in Orlando attending the annual meeting of the International Association of Police Chiefs. It is unclear when the teleconference will be held, although it could be in the next few days, according to interim City Manager Jerry Mudd.

The idea behind the teleconference, Mudd said, is to give the city a chance to present its case to Braun and show that Pinellas Park did not misuse the grant money.

While Milchan was in Orlando, he also met briefly with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to discuss the issue and ask for her help. U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young, R-Indian Rocks Beach, already had written to Reno and asked for her intervention.

Mudd said Reno told Milchan she would answer Young's letter.

"We don't know what the net effect of any of that will be," Mudd said. His hope is to do as much as possible to keep the money.

The problems began three years ago when the city was awarded a $750,000 grant ($250,000 a year for three years) to enhance the community policing program. Under the grant's terms, the city was to hire 10 new police officers for the program.

However, just days before the grant was awarded, the city raised taxes to pay for eight new officers.

Thus, officials used the grant money to hire two new officers and pay for the eight officers they had decided to hire with the tax increase. The next year, they reduced taxes because the federal money was paying for the eight officers.

Earlier this year, federal auditors said the city had violated the grant by supplanting, or substituting, the grant money for the tax money that was earmarked for those eight cops. In essence, they said Pinellas Park misused the federal money.

Pinellas Park at first denied but later conceded that it had increased taxes to pay for the eight officers.

Last month, the Justice Department gave Pinellas Park 30 days and three options to fix the problem:

Hire eight new officers with local funds.

Pay back $231,413 and keep the COPS grant. This option would mean the city would have to hire eight new officers for at least the remainder of the grant.

Repay $231,413 and forfeit the rest of the grant.

City officials have estimated the true cost of these options ranges from about $547,218 to $852,075.

They've asked for a 60-day extension and have also decided to write to President Clinton about the situation.

Last week, Mudd said the Justice Department had given Pinellas Park 45 days to decide what to do.

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