Council Rejects Overture from Sheriff
By Carl Wagenfohr
CLEARWATER - Clearwater's 2009/10 budget process ended last Thursday with Council approval of a 5.155 millage rate and a General Fund operating budget of $115-million, reduced from 2008/09's $121-million.
But throughout Clearwater's arduous year-long budget cycle, there has been an elephant in the room that was not discussed, the often rumored but never publicly evaluated opportunity for significant cost savings by consolidating the Clearwater Police Department (CPD) into the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
That silence was broken at last week's City Council meeting by Councilmember John Doran after the budget was approved.
"There is a reason that Clearwater has been acknowledged as one of the safest cities of our size in the United States," Doran said, "It's because we have a premier Police Department."
After enumerating a number of factors, including what he called this year's "tortuous" budget process, the imminent retirement of Chief Sid Klein and continued pressure from Clearwater's taxpayers to trim the city's budget, Doran asked his colleagues if they were interested in soliciting a proposal from Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats to take over policing responsibility in the city.
"I am not," responded Mayor Frank Hibbard, citing an efficiency report conducted earlier this year by Matrix Consulting that described CPD as "very well-managed". The Matrix study found only $1.3-million in potential cost savings without reducing service levels, an amount that the City Council did eliminate from CPD's $37-million 2009/10 budget.
Hibbard said that the Sheriff's labor costs "mirror pretty much ours, in fact some of their costs are higher than ours." He concluded, "There's only one way, in my belief, that they save money, and that's fewer officers. We can get rid of officers if we need to get rid of officers, but I don't think that's what our citizens want."
Hibbard also cautioned that by going with the Sheriff, "We lose the ability to move our officers around where we want them. I think the freedom and the power of deployment is critical."
"As long as I'm here, I will not entertain getting rid of our police department," Hibbard concluded, "What I think we ought to get rid of is the enclaves that the Sheriff is patrolling within our city. That would make for more efficiencies."
Hibbard's colleagues unanimously agreed.
Vice Mayor Paul Gibson related a recent conversation he had with Sheriff Coats:
"My understanding is that our pay is pretty much the same as yours. How can you save us the amount of money you think you're going to save us," he asked Coats. "He [Coats] was not really able to answer that question," Gibson said.
"The issue is, are we going to be better off," said Councilmember George Cretekos, "and I think it's been shown over and over and over again that it's in the City of Clearwater's best interest to have a Clearwater Police Department, and I would hope that we would not have to have this discussion again."
"I think we can say that we've put this to bed, hopefully for a long time," said Hibbard, concluding last Thursday's discussion.
There was only one voice missing that night, Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats, whose willingness to respond to a request for policing services caused Doran to initiate the discussion.
"Citizens from Clearwater have posed the question, 'Are there savings to be had from merging with the Sheriff for some, or all, law enforcement services?'," Coats said during an interview early this week; "The answer is yes." Coats called the potential savings of $10-million that has been bandied about "conservative."
He described Clearwater's Police Department as one of the finest in the country, but that the elimination of redundancies between the Sheriff and CPD would improve policing efficiency and reduce cost to the taxpayer.
Coats cited CPD's Services Bureau, comprised earlier this year of 92 non-officer, non-field personnel, as a function that largely duplicates existing functions in the Sheriff's Office. He said that if the departments merged, he would retain less than half of those positions, with the remaining workload being absorbed into his existing organization.
Coats also pointed to CPD's Office of the Chief as being redundant in a merged organization. He would replace those 9 employees with a single Captain, who would manage police services in the city and be accountable to Clearwater's City Manager for delivery of those services.
Coats said that he would hire all of Clearwater's 116 patrol officers, leaving unaffected the service levels that Clearwater's citizens have come to expect. Beyond that, any contract would offer Clearwater the opportunity to specify the required levels of service, with the Sheriff's Office providing the necessary level of staffing and charging the city accordingly.
The City of Dunedin, largest of the twelve Pinellas County municipalities that contract for police services, is pleased with the Sheriff's Office; "I think they provide excellent service to the community," said City Manager Ron DiSpirito. In addition to basic police services, Dunedin contracts with the Sheriff for extra community police officers and a full-time traffic detail.
"They are extremely responsive to meeting our needs," DiSpirito said. Those needs included a $300-thousand budget reduction for Dunedin's next fiscal year. That cut was accommodated by the Sheriff with no reduction in service according to DiSpirito.
"As a Sheriff, I've got enough responsibility; I'm not looking for more business," said Coats; "I'm looking at it as a citizen of Clearwater along with some of my fellow citizens, that there are some efficiencies to be gained by merging some or all law enforcement services with the Sheriff."
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