ST. PETE BEACH – One year ago, when the city of St. Pete Beach made the transition from a local police department to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, there was trepidation on the part of some residents.
Among other things, there was concern that the city would lose the personal attention it received from the local police officers. But a year later, all of those fears have been put to rest. Most city residents and city leaders are happy with the new professionalism the sheriff’s office has brought. Some say they feel safer now.
City Manager Mike Bonfield said the quality of service has been very good.
“One big advantage to having PCSO is all patrol positions are filled at all times, whereas when we had our department, many positions were vacant as a result of vacation, illness, training and workers compensation,” he said. “The result is a greater presence on the street.”
Bonfield said a major plus with the sheriff’s office is the city’s ability to bulk up its number of deputies on the street during peak times for $45 per hour per deputy.
Mayor Steve McFarlin called the current service level a night and day difference from the past.
“As far as a comparable,” McFarlin said, “I would have to say it’s like the difference between having a small independent hardware store and having a Home Depot. We have our own franchise of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.”
City Commissioner Lorraine Huhn, who represents the city’s northern-most district, echoed their comments.
“I have not heard any negative comments from business owners or residents,” Huhn said. “There is the St. Pete Beach friendliness that residents appreciate with a strong sense of confidence that the deputies know what is going on.”
Huhn said the sheriff’s office’s community deputy for the city has made the department’s presence known, “minus any threat,” in its quest to evaluate trouble spots.
However, that feeling isn’t universal. John Michael co-owner of the BayWaters Inn, 7261 Bay St., and his business partner Brooks Murray say law enforcement services would be more effective if it were local.
“My biggest thing, for all the problems there were with the St. Pete Beach police, they were local and held more accountable to the residents,” Michael said. “Now we have a local government militia organization that handles code enforcement and fines.
“The county is too big to be held accountable for my neighborhood needs,” he added. “So I have a lot of problems with it.”
“Their customer service is good,” said Murray, “but they deliver it with an astounding amount of attitude.”
The idea of making a transition to the sheriff’s office began to gain strength about 18 months ago when city leaders were crafting their 2013 budget. The threat of a $750,000 shortfall, driven primarily by rising pension costs, forced the city into negotiations with the sheriff’s office.
Bonfield said the city saved $1.7 million the first year.
“The savings increases or decreases each year by the difference between the increase in the PCSO contract compared to the likely increase we would have experienced with our own department,” Bonfield said. “This year (fiscal year 2014) the contract increased less than half a percent, which is probably a couple percent less than our own department would have increased.”
Bonfield said the difference in costs between the PCSO and the city department is primarily from the efficiencies with dispatch, supervision, facility and equipment.
Since PCSO deputies work out of their cars and a small office in City Hall, the former St. Pete Beach police station, which was built in 1990 for $2.2 million, is no longer in use.
Captain David Danzig, commander of the sheriff’s office’s Central District Patrol Operations Bureau, said adding St. Pete Beach to the list of communities it serves went smoothly.
“A week has not gone by since the transition where I have not received a positive call or comment from a resident, the mayor or a city commission member,” Danzig said. “There were no issues in this merger and with the work of the city staff and our staff, it went smoothly.”
The former St. Pete Beach Police Department at times was unable to have more than two officers on the street at a given time. But with the PCSO, Danzig said those numbers are higher.
“It varies by shift and day, but typically there is a sergeant and three deputies,” Danzig said. “On some occasions, specialized units like our DUI enforcement unit will conduct patrols in the city, which during that time frame there could be as many as 10 deputies in the city.”
Danzig said the PCSO also provides two community policing deputies – one of which is designated as a code enforcement deputy. The original contract with the PCSO called for one community policing deputy but city officials recently approved the addition of the second community policing deputy at a cost of $89,710 per year.
The community policing deputy’s primary responsibility consists of acting as a liaison between city residents, the sheriff’s office and city administration.
“This (community policing model) has played a vital role in the success of the transition,” said McFarlin. “I can’t emphasize enough how this procedure has improved local relationships and served as a preventive in ongoing issues.”
McFarlin said city residents and leaders were concerned early on that the city would “lose control” of its authority over local law enforcement.
“The fact of the matter is that both the administration and public gained control,” said McFarlin. “We all have more input in our service than ever before. We are a customer of the SO.”
“I would say we are very fortunate in Pinellas County to have the option of a quality organization as the PCSO for law enforcement services,” he said. “They understand the expectations and needs of their contract communities and do everything possible to be your city police department.”