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Residents ask city for more police officers

St. Petersburg needs more police officers, residents told the City Council at Thursday's public budget forum.

Mayor David Fischer's budget includes funding for the same number of sworn police officers as last year, 538.

"The Jungle Terrace Civic Association took a vote, and we unanimously feel that we need more police protection," association president Steve Plice told the council. "There is a problem, real or perceived."

Residents from that neighborhood said police are slow to respond, especially to non-emergency crimes.

"We need more officers," said resident Linda Sessions. "It's a little bit long when you need a police officer. We recently had an incident in our neighborhood, and it took 22 minutes for the police to get there."

Council of Neighborhood Associations vice president Brent Fisher told the council his group recommends hiring 72 more officers.

Council member Jay Lasita said the plea is a familiar one.

"More police, more police, more police," he said. "The hue and cry, we hear it again."

City police Chief Goliath Davis III said last week he has hired a consultant to study whether the city needs more officers. Fischer said he supports that approach. "I want to do it in as scientific a way as we can," he said.

Some on the council, like Frank Peterman, also want to wait for that study before deciding whether there are enough officers.

Police union president Jack Soule said he agrees with the recommendation not to fund more officers. The problem, he said, is that the department has trouble hiring and retaining people, leaving it perennially 40 officers short.

Thursday's public forum was an early step toward setting the city's $439-million spending plan for next year. The process will end in September when the City Council sets the tax rate and approves the final budget.

Council member Bill Foster said he was surprised that the 15 residents present Thursday did not complain about the mayor leaving the property tax rate the same at $7.25 per $1,000 of taxable value, when it has been reduced in recent years.

The tax rate is by far the highest of any Pinellas city, and the city is poised to collect 6.8 percent more in taxes by leaving the rate the same, because property values have risen.

Western St. Petersburg residents also asked the council to provide funding for the Walter Fuller pool to remain open year-round. The council funded the idea last year on a trial basis, but the mayor's budget does not include money to continue it.