TREASURE ISLAND – The city has begun the process toward looking into a possible proposal from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office to provide law enforcement services.
After a lengthy discussion on March 18, city commissioners decided to take the first step in the process, which would be consideration of a resolution to obtain a cost proposal from the sheriff’s office for the same level of service the city currently receives from the Treasure Island Police Department. The vote could come as soon as April 1.
In an effort to find ways for the city to save tax dollars, Commissioner Tim Ramsberger instituted the discussion. His position is strictly to get cost numbers and proceed accordingly, he said.
Commissioner Carol Coward supported Ramsberger. Commissioner Alan Bildz and Mayor Bob Minning were against any consideration of abolishing the TIPD. Commissioner Phil Collins said he doesn’t believe the public wants a change but noted “what I think personally has little bearing compared to the people I’m representing.”
This will be the second time in 10 years the city has considered a sheriff’s office option. In 2005, the issue failed.
“I remember back in 2005, once we got the contract amounts from the sheriff’s office, it was proven beyond any doubt that the residents of Treasure Island wanted to stay with the Treasure Island Police Department,” said Collins. “Personally, I want to see the TIPD stay but I think it’s our obligation to let the residents make that final determination.”
They will if it gets that far. According to City Attorney Maura Kiefer, a switch to the sheriff’s office would require the passage of an ordinance by the City Commission abolishing the TIPD. The next step would be for Treasure Island voters to approve the ordinance in a referendum.
“I think this a healthy debate, a civil debate,” said Ramsberger. “I do think it’s right to get all of the information from the sheriff’s office and I’m all in favor of letting the voters decide.”
“I think it’s our responsibility to look into it and let the voters decide,” she said. “Do I hate to spend the money? I do. But I just think we need to do it.”
Bildz called the idea “an exercise in futility.”
“We’ve been down this road before and in my mind this is a mistake,” Bildz said. “I don’t agree that we should do this.”
“I don’t think this a good path to go down,” Minning said. “I will guarantee you this room will be packed. This is an issue I don’t think our city needs to go through. I will not vote for it. But there are three for it, so we’ll proceed with the process and move it forward as a resolution.”
Ramsberger’s proposal comes on the heels of St. Pete Beach abolishing its police department in January 2013. The first-year savings was an estimated $1.7 million that also included what St. Pete Beach officials felt was an upgrade in police protection.
Treasure Island officials are seeking ways to increase revenue without increasing ad valorem taxes. One idea floated recently by Minning was to return the city’s bascule bridge to a toll bridge.
According to the current budget, the city’s cost to operate the TIPD is $2.47 million, which is 27 percent of Treasure Island’s general fund budget. That comes eight months after the city switched its communications services to Pinellas County, resulting in a $300,000 savings.
“I’m simply asking that we look at what the sheriff would offer to provide (law enforcement) services,” said Ramsberger. “I’m not suggesting at this point we make a decision but I think it would be prudent for us to find out what their proposal might be like and what kind of cost savings it might provide so we can be better positioned to evaluate how to maintain affordability.”
Coward said it would be important for citizens to know what they’re voting on, if the issue comes to a city referendum.
“This way (getting a cost proposal from the sheriff’s office), they’ll know what they’re voting on,” Coward said. “Do they want to save money or do they want another tax increase? We’re thinking about putting tolls on the bridge but that is not going to be an easy solution. So I think we have to look at our options.”
Former Mayor Julian Fant said he favored keeping the TIPD.
“The best law enforcement available is that closest to the citizens,” Fant said. “If we’re going to cut corners to save money we have to ask at what cost?”
Treasure Island resident Mitchell Shenkman led a petition drive and collected 171 signatures from city residents in favor of getting a cost proposal from the sheriff’s office.
“We have struggled here to get the bridges painted, get undergrounding done and to get our roads paved,” Shenkman said. “There are a lot of things we’re on the rope for in the future and if we can save $1 million (per year) by merging with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, I see that as an advantage for the city of Treasure Island. I don’t see why we can’t just get the numbers.”
Earlier in the discussion, Treasure Island Police Chief Tim Casey spoke about the merits of keeping the police department referring to TIPD as a “dedicated agency vs. a contract agency.”
Casey pointed to the fact that TIPD has six officers working days and up to five officers on nights and weekends, an active marine patrol and the ability deliver quick responses to emergencies.
He also pointed to the fact that his department patrols the beach about 250 times per month.
“We have the vehicles to do that,” Casey said. “It is my understanding that Madeira Beach and St. Pete Beach (which are patrolled by the sheriff’s office) do not have those same facilities.”
Casey said the last time the city went received a proposal from the sheriff’s office, the inventory of existing police equipment, which the city would receive a credit for, took about four to six weeks.
City Manager Reid Silverboard said the entire process could take several months.