The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office made a pitch to the Gulfport City Council for how it would handle police dispatch services if Gulfport officials decide to contract with the sheriff's office as part of the final 2012 city budget.
Chief Deputy Bob Gualtieri of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office addressed the council and about 25 Gulfport residents at Tuesday night's regular meeting. He stressed the familiarity of the PCSO in providing services to a large part of the county.
"There are 24 cities in Pinellas County," Gualtieri said. "We provide primary law enforcement services to 12 of those cities, and we provide dispatch services for an additional three. We have been in the business providing primary law enforcement for unincorporated Pinellas County area for obviously a long time."
"We have been contracting with area municipalities going back from the '70s," he added. "So we have a lot of experience doing it. It's very important to us, the services we provide."
Gualtieri assured the council that services Gulfport residents expect from police would remain the same.
"As far as non-emergency calls are concerned, somebody picks up the phone today and calls a non-emergency number, we would forward that number so that it remains the same," he said.
"I really believe that for residents of Gulfport, it would be seamless," Gualtieri said. "They wouldn’t see any difference in the delivery of service."
The current Gulfport employees due to be outsourced — four dispatchers and a network administrator — will be offered jobs with the county, Gualtieri said. Whether to take the jobs would be up to the individual staff members.
"We recognize the importance in taking care of our employees," Gualtieri said. "We will do everything we can to ensure the success of your employees at the sheriff's office if they choose to accept employment with us."
"That is very important to us, and we have done that every single time we have contracted with an entity," he said.
Would Dispatchers Be Familiar with Gulfport?
One of the concerns of Gulfport residents in opposition to the plan was that county dispatchers would not have a sense of Gulfport's unique community. That was also on the mind of Councilmember Sam Henderson, who voted against the plan last week.
"Once we are no longer running this operation ourselves," Henderson said, "it's no longer entirely up to us how we handle it."
"If we relinquish control," Henderson added, "that's a big concern I have. There is no guarantee we will have that same kind of rapport, that same kind of community knowledge."
Gualtieri agreed that community awareness is important in understanding the neighborhoods served by police dispatch, and that familiarity may take some time. He suggested that PCSO dispatchers ride along with Gulfport police to help accelerate the process.
A new Pinellas County sheriff was another concern of council members. Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats retires in November, and the council wondered if the change would affect any agreement Gulfport makes with the PCSO.
Gualtieri assured them that any contract would be honored no matter who was in charge.
"There is no profit margin with this contract; I am sure that any sheriff will do the right thing," Gualtieri said. "The costs are what they are, and I am sure any sheriff will do the same thing."
How Would PSCO Budget Cuts Affect Service?
Budget cuts were another issue. In the past four years, the sheriff's office has trimmed nearly $108 million from its budget.
If there were any further budget cuts, would outsourced dispatchers be affected?
"There have been very few cuts from the communications center, and we only made those cuts where it wouldn't affect service level," Gualtieri said. "Just like having officers on the street, you have to have people in the communication center to get the info out. We would never let it get to an unacceptable level."
"We're in good shape," he added. "In fact, we're hiring a number of people throughout the agency."
A preliminary plan to allow the county to provide police dispatch was approved by a 3-2 vote last week. Gulfport city leaders are now under pressure to approve a new city budget by the end of September. The move to allow the sheriff's office to provide police dispatch would save Gulfport an estimated $147,677 in 2012 and $305,226 in 2013.
The council expressed gratitude for Gualtieri's appearance. It answered several of the lingering questions on this contentious and emotional issue.
"I'm sure you weren't expecting a real friendly crowd," Henderson joked.
"I'll take any crowd," Gualtieri replied. "It's fine with me."
The debate over outsourcing police dispatch will continue at one final special budget meeting at Gulfport City Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Gulfport City Hall is located at 2401 53rd St. S.