Salary woes drive off Belleair Beach officers

The department's chief is leaving to work for the Pinellas County sheriff, saying he can't afford to keep his job anymore.

Published August 13, 2006

BELLEAIR BEACH - After working in the city's police department for more than 20 years, Police Chief Earnest Armistead says the city council is running him and his department out of town.

"I can't afford to work here anymore," Chief Armistead said Friday. "I am sick over it. This is not what any of us really want to do."

His last day as police chief is Aug. 31. He then will begin his new job as assistant director of disaster preparedness for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, where he will start at a $58,500 annual salary that will be adjusted upward Oct. 1.

"The chief has training and experience in disaster and emergency planning. I knew he was interested in making a career change, and I offered him a job," Sheriff Jim Coats says.

"I'll be paid a lot more than here," Armistead said.

The benefits will be better, too. Armistead says when the city picked a new health insurance carrier this year to save nearly 30 percent in premium costs, it ended up hurting its employees - and gave them another reason to look for new jobs.

"They gutted our health insurance. The new company hardly pays for anything. It was never like this before," Armistead says.

He says virtually all city employees, as well as his entire police department, are looking for new jobs - partly because of the sharply reduced benefits and mostly because pay scales have not kept up with living costs.

"One of my officers was on the verge of a financial breakdown. Her rent was more than she brought home in a two-week period. With her other bills, she couldn't afford to eat," Armistead says, adding he and other officers regularly brought in food for her.

The city's $28,825 starting pay for police officers is substantially below what officers need to live, he says.

New police officers are finding that previously affordable apartment housing is disappearing amid rapid condominium conversions, while those who own their homes are being priced out of the area by insurance costs rising faster than salaries.

His comments echo what police officers under his command said in a recent formal letter asking that the city allow its police force to be taken over by the Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Coats said he has hired two Belleair police officers and will consider hiring more after the start of the new fiscal year in October. Everyone in the department has applied to become a sheriff's deputy, he said.

Several weeks ago, the Fraternal Order of Police, which is representing the department's police officers in contract negotiations, wrote a letter to the city warning that at least half the department was considering seeking jobs with the Sheriff's Department.

The officers called on the city to disband the police department and turn over law enforcement to the Sheriff's Office or "another qualified agency."

Since then, the union has rejected the city's most recent offer of a $5,000 across-the-board salary hike, according to Armistead, who is not represented by the union.

"My officers will get an automatic $10,000 increase by switching to working for the sheriff," Armistead says, "but they would be happy with less. The just can't afford to be at the bottom. They don't think what they are asking for is a lot. Deep down, everybody would like to stay."

Armistead says he would remain as police chief if the city brings his salary a lot closer to what other Pinellas County police chiefs make - or to what he will be making in his new position with the Sheriff's Office.

He makes $54,000 a year, an amount slated to increase to $58,000 in next year's budget.

City Manager Reid Silverboard, who will report back to the city council Aug. 21, declined to reveal what the city may offer Armistead to stay.

"They have got to pay more, but it doesn't look like they are going to," Armistead says. "It will be a sad day when the entire police department leaves. The residents will not be pleased," he said.

Monday, a number of those residents and police officers gave the city council a taste of reactions if the city does not find a way to pay its employees more money.

"We are one of the wealthiest cities and will not pay the police department a living salary. We are starving them out. If the police go, the council should also go," Herbert Hayes says.

His wife, Mary, told city council members it would be a "terrible, terrible mistake" to allow the police department to implode.

Pat Lamb, whose husband is a city police officer, became emotional.

"We are tired of living from payday to payday," she said. "You don't pay them enough. Get off your butts and do something about it."

Resident Dennis Campbell asked the council to be "fair" and "open-hearted" when negotiating with the police union.

"Public safety is the first obligation of local government," resident Bruce Cohen said.