In 1998, the voters of St. Pete Beach put protections against disbanding the local police department in the city charter. This November, St. Pete Beach voters will consider removing those protections, with the certainty the city commission will then quickly hire the Pinellas Sheriff's Office to provide law enforcement services.
"It's a tremendous savings financially, removes a lot of liability from the city, having the operation," Mayor Steve McFarlin explained. "Another big thing for this city, which is seasonal, is the flexibility: we can bring other officers in when needed without having full-time hires."
The underlying motivation is a crushing debt. The city's police pension fund is underfunded by about $7 million, and the sheriff can provide the same services as the St. Pete Beach Police Department for about $2.4 million less per year.
But for the first few years, the city will have to chuck about $1 million a year of those savings into the pension fund.
"Nobody can argue the numbers the city is facing," said Sgt. Chris Centofanti, speaking on behalf of the narrow majority of officers favoring disbanding. "Their concern is, ‘am I going to have a job, am I going to have a job pay reduction, am I going to get a raise in the future?' "
If voters approve changing the city charter, and the city commission follows through with a contract, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he will hire qualified displaced employees at the same pay level. He told FOX 13 News last summer the position of rank-and-file officers usually drives local elections on disbanding police agencies. Sgt. Centofanti confirms patrol officers field a dozen or so questions a day from citizens.
"A million different versions of, ‘are you guys happy, do you feel safe in your working environment, do you want to leave?' " he said. "The dedication is still there. It's economics of the city, the state, the country. Consolidation seems to be the wave of the future."
FOX 13 / WTVT-TV
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