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Businesses on beach want more patrolling

Rowdy crowds scare families away, they complain. Authorities say there isn't enough manpower to effectively cover the area.

By JENNIFER FARRELL
Published June 22, 2003

CLEARWATER - It was supposed to be better this year.

And for a while, it was.

More badges made for fewer bare breasts and cut down on beer-driven antics among boaters who anchor offshore near Clearwater Pass.

But after a while, people caught on: Patrols have their limits. And now business owners surrounding Shephard's, Clearwater's summer party central, say the bar's rowdy summer crowds have returned en masse, scaring away families and hurting receipts.

"Memorial Day weekend was a nightmare," said Dave Richard, night and weekend desk clerk at the Clearwater Beach EconoLodge. "We have a big, fat folder of complaints."

The EconoLodge is among several businesses renewing a call on the city for help. This time, they want boats banned from dropping anchor in the shallows off their beaches, leaving boaters to tie off directly behind Shephard's.

"On weekends," said Richard, "it's definitely not a place where families can be comfortable."

A similar measure, which targeted the entire shoreline between the Adam's Mark Hotel and the Clearwater Pass bridge, failed early this year. City commissioners decided the law would be unsafe, because it would force boaters into deep water and encourage them to swim ashore, more than 150 feet through a dangerous current.

Instead, the city opted to step up enforcement on the water.

But from the beginning, Clearwater police and the county Sheriff's Office have said they don't have enough bodies to patrol the area effectively. Clearwater no longer operates a marine unit.

Now city officials are considering whether to revive the marine unit and ask businesses in the area to help pay for it.

On Friday, Clearwater Police Chief Sid Klein said startup costs would run $247,164 for two full-time officers, fuel and equipment. Annual expenses, he estimated, would range between $120,000 and $140,000.

But businesses, which say they are already losing money, appear reluctant to chip in.

"We don't believe that our property is the enticement that creates the problem," said Ed Armstrong, the Clearwater attorney representing Quality Inn. "It's a law enforcement issue that ought to be borne by the city generally, in our view."

City officials, meanwhile, say they have other priorities.

"I'm not prepared to increase our police force in that area," said City Manager Bill Horne. "My priority for policing is downtown."

Chief Sid Klein said manpower is limited, especially as the department prepares to lose federal grants that pay for 13 officers. He rejected suggestions to operate the unit only on weekends and holidays.

"You can't do this on a part-time basis," said Klein. "If you're going to do it, you've got to do it right."

Roping off selected areas seems unrealistic, said Mayor Brian Aungst. Rather, beefing up patrols and joint operations with other county, state and federal agencies seemed to work. But the solution likely will require some private investment, according to Aungst.

"We're in a budget crunch and we've got a lot of things to deal with," he said. "There's some point where we've got to get some people to help us out."

- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 22, 2003, 01:33:03]


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