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Tarpon residents values their police force

The city could save taxpayers money by disbanding its force, but most residents want their own law enforcement.

Disbanding the Tarpon Springs Police Department and contracting with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement service would allow the city to cut property tax rates by 25 percent.

That could save a family that owns a $100,000 house nearly $100 per year.

Oldsmar, Safety Harbor and Seminole did it years ago. Dunedin _ a larger town than Tarpon Springs _ made the switch in 1995. They are each saving hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars, and all charge lower tax rates than Tarpon Springs.

Each contract city has an agreement with the Sheriff's Office that specifies exactly what services the city wants, and Sheriff Everett Rice assigns deputies exclusively to each city.

Dunedin made the switch in 1995 after a raucous debate. Even people who opposed the change acknowledge that deputies are doing a good job there. And Dunedin has cut tax rates by a quarter and swelled its reserve fund to $5-million from $50,000.

"It has worked out just as I suspected," said Dunedin City Commissioner John Doglione. "We have equal or better protection at significantly lower costs, some $2-million less per year."

But Tarpon Springs seems far from getting rid of its police force of 58 full-time employees, including 46 sworn officers. In fact, the city is moving in the opposite direction.

+ It will spend $4.9-million by the end of next year to construct a new public safety building. Half the building is being customized to serve as a new police headquarters, an obvious long-term investment in the force.

+ Police Chief Mark LeCouris will receive a 27 percent pay raise under a new city pay plan, and the city is negotiating salary increases with the union that represents rank-and-file officers.

+ The department is going through the rigorous two-year process of seeking state accreditation.

Tarpon Springs says it is striving for excellence, not economy.

Rice estimates he could slice 40 percent to 50 percent off Tarpon Springs' $3-million annual police budget. Just a 33 percent reduction in the police budget would save enough money to cut city property tax rates by a fourth.

"There's a lot of economy of scale," Rice said. When Rice takes over law enforcement in a community, he typically eliminates commanding officers and support workers, relying on his existing dispatchers and evidence technicians. He keeps the number of front-line officers the same as the city department had provided, and can adjust the arrangement to fit any city's needs, he says.

"I never initiate these conversations," he said. "If the city asked me, we could run the numbers. They've got more officers in Dunedin now than they did when they had their own police department." Tarpon Springs city commissioners say they are seek

ing to reduce the tax rate, but not by getting rid of the Police Department.

"It would drop our (tax) rate considerably, that's a fact," Mayor Frank DiDonato said of switching to the Sheriff's Office. "I would say that that's why some of the other smaller municipalities have switched over. But to this point in time, I think the citizens in Tarpon Springs have said that they appreciate their law enforcement, and they want it to continue."

In 1996, right after Dunedin's City Commission dissolved that city's police force, Tarpon Springs voters amended the city charter to require a referendum before anything similar could happen in their town. More than 80 percent of those who voted approved the measure.

+ + +

Tarpon Springs, a community of about 20,000 shoehorned into the northwestern corner of Pinellas County, has a different attitude about itself than a lot of other towns in the county.

There is a historic suspicion here that the Pinellas County government forgets about or disrespects the quirky old city near the Pasco County line.

City resident Lanny Freeman, 59, of the River Village subdivision, doesn't even think Tarpon Springs officers do a very good job. Many officers are "haughty and abrupt," he says.

But he would still rather pay more for a local police force than ask the Sheriff's Office to step in at a discount.

"I'm fiercely independent about the town I live in," he said. "I buy all my gas here, all my groceries here. I buy all my clothes here; I won't go to the malls. I think it's the way a resident of any town this size should be."

Other people say the police do a good job. Many say officers get there fast after a 911 call. But their praise tends to focus mostly on the Police Department's small-town niceties, not Dragnet-style crime fighting.

Officers who patrol during the night slip "Night Eyes" cards into the doorjambs of people's homes and businesses to show that they have been checking the area.

"I'd rather have my own police department _ they have a lot of young fellows who seem to be doing their jobs," said city homeowner Mike Delacruz. "The sheriff isn't going to be as concerned."

Business owners agreed.

"Being a small town, we know all the policemen, and we're on a first-name basis," said Karen Kundra, president of the Main Street Merchants Association. "They help us out with all our events. We just felt that was the type of situation that was kind of attractive about Tarpon Springs."

The Police Department runs the Cops & Kids Youth Center on Harrison Street, where kids can go after school for help with their homework or wholesome recreation. Tarpon Springs Police Chief Mark LeCouris often leads field trips for the kids himself.

City Commissioner David Archie said that kind of involvement in the community is what impresses him, because many youngsters need good role models.

"I think that some of the things that are being done in relation to community policing are going to mean future savings of lives and in people becoming productive citizens," he said.

+ + +

For his part, police chief LeCouris saw the consolidation trend sweeping Pinellas County a long time ago. He says he resolved to give city residents value for the extra cash that they pay to make sure the Police Department could defend itself against consolidation.

"It's done local, small-town, community ways," he says.

Dunedin's decision to scrap its police department came as a wake-up call, LeCouris said.

"We can't live on our laurels," he said. "I remind the guys we've got a higher standard to keep up. We've got to make sure in five years, that 84 percent (community support) is still there."

The department is now seeking state accreditation to try to raise its performance to a higher level, which requires it to prove its procedures conform with widely accepted professional law enforcement practices.

The chief is making sure he could survive a referendum vote as set out in the charter.

"If the majority of people think we should go, I'll walk out of here quietly," he said.

He points out that with their own department, Tarpon Springs residents have the short-term advantage of being able to complain to the man in charge if the police have made them unhappy.

That also is important to residents of St. Pete Beach, one of the only Pinellas County towns similar in size to Tarpon Springs to hold onto its own police force.

"Anybody in this community can call up and make an appointment," St. Pete Beach City Manager Carl Schwing said. "And it's nice to have a police chief on the city executive team where he is in staff meetings with us and interacting with the department directors with issues of visibility, safety and code enforcement."

Some residents in Tarpon Springs would like to save the money by going with the Sheriff's Office.

"It should have been changed over a long time ago," resident George Condento said. "It would take a burden away from the homeowner and taxpayer in the community. I think they do a good job, but looking at it financially, it would save a lot of money. I believe we would still receive the same service we're getting now."

Others think it just seems too good to be true that the city could receive the same amount of service for less money. City political observer Gerald Goen put it this way:

"My experience in life has never taught me you could get more for less money. It's like any other value judgment _ it's what people want to pay for."

City commissioners say they would have to hear from a lot more constituents like Condento before they would consider letting the green-and-white Sheriff's Office cars replace the blue-and-white city cars patrolling the streets.

"If it's worth it to them to have the service discontinued, then I think the citizens would have to bring that forward," Commissioner Jim Archer said.

"No doubt in my mind. We're keeping them," Commissioner Beverley Billiris said.

_ Bryan Gilmer covers Tarpon Springs and can be reached by e-mail at gilmersptimes.com or by phone at (727) 445-4182.

Around Pinellas

This is how some other selected Pinellas cities provide law enforcement:

City police force

St. Petersburg

Largo

Clearwater

St. Pete Beach

Pinellas Park

Gulfport

Treasure Island

Indian Shores

Belleair Beach

Indian Rocks Beach

Contract with Sheriff's Office

Seminole

Safety Harbor

Oldsmar

Dunedin

South Pasadena

The Redington beaches

Belleair Bluffs

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