TREASURE ISLAND — Calls to the Treasure Island Police Department may soon be answered by a county sheriff's dispatcher.
The move, still to be finalized by the City Commission, is expected to save the city nearly $250,000 annually by shifting four communications staffers to a new emergency communications center being built in Largo, said Tim Casey, Treasure Island police chief.
City commissioners said they were in favor of the move Tuesday after being told the city otherwise would have to spend $10,000 to upgrade digital equipment because of the new center. The annual maintenance cost would then be $16,500, Casey said. The annual cost of salary and benefits for the four communications officers is $299,000.
Construction of the new consolidated center, first suggested in 1996, began last year. The center, which is expected to eventually handle most emergency and routine calls to Pinellas County municipalities, will be operational by March 2014.
Transferring the four city dispatchers to the Sheriff's Office now will "start their employment clock in terms of seniority and benefit accrual and allow them to train and acclimate to the field of telecommunications on a countywide level," Casey said.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has agreed to hire the four dispatchers and keep their current salaries, he said. City dispatchers were apprehensive at first about the change, Casey said, but after meeting with the Sheriff's Office's transition team, they now realize the benefits.
"Some of the fears they had have been abated," he said.
"This opens doors for them they don't have here," Casey told commissioners. The dispatchers will qualify for broader benefits and could transfer to other positions within the Sheriff's Office or at the communications center, Casey said.
Treasure Island residents will notice little change in the move. The emergency and nonemergency numbers for the Police Department — which has 26 full-time and one part-time positions and a budget of $2,456,479 — will remain the same. The only difference will be that a sheriff's dispatcher will answer calls to the police department. The calls will be rerouted to the city police officers if necessary, Casey said.
"They will hear a sheriff's officer instead of a Treasure Island officer when they call, but it will be a Treasure Island officer at their door," Casey said.
A new number to contact Treasure Island police administration will be set up so callers can call directly.
City police will continue to process reports, citations, subpoenas and public record requests and maintain property and evidence.
The start-up costs for the new system will be $38,700, Casey said. Beginning Oct. 1, the start of the new fiscal year, the city will pay $48,654 annually for the dispatch service.
The conversion should create other benefits, the police chief said. New communications software used by mobile data terminals in police cars will alert Treasure Island officers to events in nearby beach communities. If the new system had been in use during a shoplifting incident in January at a business on Gulf Boulevard, Casey said police would have known that a witness to the shoplifting was wanted by the Sheriff's Office for a rape investigation that occurred hours before.
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The staff transfer is planned for July 21. The city will pay $42,127 for accrued sick and vacation leave and $25,615 for separation pay to the dispatchers.
City Commissioner Tim Ramsberger's suggestion that the city look into the financial benefits of outsourcing all police department responsibilities to the Sheriff's Office wasn't supported by other commissioners.
According to the city charter, a majority on the commission would have to vote in favor to abolish the Police Department and then a referendum would be held to see whether city residents supported the idea.
"This was brought up seven years ago and was turned down by the commission," Commissioner Phil Collins said.
Mayor Bob Minning said he would be willing to consider the idea if there seemed to be a groundswell of support, but he hadn't seen one.
Commissioner Carol Coward said she had heard a few people discuss the idea but added, "I don't see a burning desire to change."