DUNEDIN – The Dunedin City Commission unanimously approved on April 16 pooling grant funds from the United States Justice Department with other Pinellas County municipalities to expand the sheriff’s countywide prisoner transport system.
Each year, cities receive funding from the United States Department of Justice Assistance Grant, nicknamed the JAG program, said City Manager Rob DiSpirito. These funds may be used for various law enforcement acquisitions and functions, he said. For instance, in 2008, Dunedin used its $10,000 of funds to buy a trail bike and an electric utility vehicle for the sheriff’s community policing program.
This year, Dunedin has received $54,412 out of about $3 million that was allocated countywide by JAG funds, DiSpirito said. This increase in funds is partially due to the economic stimulus package. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office has proposed 12 municipalities pool their funds to expand the prisoner transport service countywide.
The Sheriff’s Office currently has a pilot program for unincorporated areas of the county and its five contract cities, including Dunedin, which provides transport vans to transport and book prisoners into the county jail.
“The benefit to the cities is that local law enforcement will no longer have to transport and book prisoners into the county jail, allowing them to instead remain in their cities doing patrols and doing local law enforcement,” DiSpirito said.
However, the Sheriff’s Office must cut $55 million in its budget, so this grant money would ensure the program will exist for at least the next 18 months, said Robert Gualtieri, chief deputy with the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
As of the April 16th meeting, the other cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Office – Seminole, Madeira Beach, Safety Harbor and Oldsmar – had already approved donating their grant allocations. The other municipalities involved in the 18-month program are St. Petersburg, Largo, Pinellas Park, Tarpon Springs, Gulfport and St. Pete Beach.
At the end of the 18 months, Gualtieri said, the cities that the Sheriff’s Office do not contract with will have the option of either using additional grant money to continue to pay for this service, fund it independently through the general fund, or withdraw from the service. He added that the sheriff’s office has no intention of discontinuing the service for Dunedin and the other contracted municipalities after the 18 months are over, but there is no way to predict the economic climate at that time.
The commissioners expressed support for the program but concerned over cost.
Commissioner Julie Ward Bujalski said she is glad to provide the money but is concerned because this program is already part of the regular services provided and she does not want to sign up to have a new, regular cost to the city. Bujalski and other commissioners said they were concerned that after the 18 months are over that this would become a line-item that would mean permanent, future cost.
“I think the program is great – I’ve seen it first-hand,” Bujalski said. “I’ve been on a ride-along, I’ve seen how it works and have visited the Pinellas County Jail where a lot of the booking people said it is a great program. IT gets them in and out much quicker and it keeps the sheriff’s deputies on our streets more. So I totally agree with it, but I’m questioning, if we’re already getting this service, and whatever the charge is, it’s in what we’re already paying, but now we’re going to take an additional $50,000 to extend the service. It sounds like now you’re telling me I have another bill.”
Gualtieri replied that it is currently not part of the city’s contract with the sheriff’s office – it is a free, pilot project that was intended for the unincorporated areas of the county and was expanded to the sheriff’s contracted cities. The Sheriff’s Office has already cut numerous positions and services due to budget cuts, he said, and these funds would ensure the safety of this service. This will expand the program to have 22 vans countywide to transport people to the jail.
Gualtieri added that he regrets there was not more time for Dunedin to consider this and ask more questions, but the Department of Justice set a fast deadline for applying for the grant, and at the time of the meeting, the request needed to be sent the following day. This topic had been set for discussion at an earlier commission meeting, but it had gotten postponed due to a question brought up by Pinellas Park.
The commission and Mayor Dave Eggers ultimately approved the grand fund use, but they encouraged more communication in the future.