Police get raise, but jobs are iffy
The council wants to be able to decide whether to dissolve the department.
By SHEILA MULLANE ESTRADA
Published December 6, 2006
The City Council took its first official step Monday toward closing the city's Police Department and contracting with the Sheriff's Office or other outside agency for law enforcement services.
Ironically, at the same meeting the council unanimously approved pay increases for the Police Department. The new contract is essentially the same as that rejected by the police union several months ago.
Assuming that the council will approve the proposed referendum at its Jan. 8 meeting, voters will have the final say at the March 13 election.
The referendum question tentatively approved by the council Monday calls for removing the Police Department as a charter-protected agency. The charter, which requires voter approval to close the department, would be changed to allow the council to contract for police services with another law enforcement agency.
It is uncertain whether voters will go along with the disbanding of the department.
Voters strongly supported keeping the police in two prior citywide elections. This year, a large majority of residents responding to an informal survey said they preferred to keep the Police Department.
Despite this public support, the city has failed to keep its police pay on par with that of surrounding departments. The pay discrepancy affects the department's top management as well.
This latest debate over the future of the Belleair Beach Police Department began this year when longtime Chief Earnest Armistead resigned to join the Sheriff's Office.
Armistead was paid $54,132 a year to lead a department of six full-time officers and a similar number of part-timers. In comparison, top-level sheriff's deputies then earned $57,278 a year, while lieutenants made more than $78,000 annually.
When the city offered Armistead a raise, bringing his salary to $58,000, he refused to stay.
By fall, salary negotiations with the police union were contentious. Several police officers spoke at a council meeting, calling for city law enforcement services to be taken over by the sheriff, who would then hire the officers at a higher salary.
When Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats did hire several Belleair Beach police officers and appeared ready to take on more, Mayor Rudy Davis fired off an angry letter. He accused Coats of trying to "intimidate" the City Council and "interfering" in the city's negotiations with its police officers.
The city's union negotiations reached formal impasse in September. An outside mediator met with both sides and subsequently recommended a salary package only slightly higher than originally offered.
The mediator rejected the union's proposed $8,600 annual hike for all officers as "unusually high." He endorsed the city's proposed $5,000 pay boost but increased the amount of raises in subsequent years.
If voters approve removing charter protection from the Police Department, the city will probably quickly seek to shut it down.
Coats spoke with council members by telephone last month to assure them that his department could easily take over policing services.
Coats said he thought his department would provide better and more personal services to the city than its own department can.
He pledged that deputies would patrol neighborhoods as well as Gulf Boulevard. Special units for drugs, traffic investigation and major crimes would be immediately available when needed, Coats said.
[Last modified December 6, 2006, 06:58:31]
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