For Gulfport residents and city officials, outsourcing police dispatch is not only a financial decision; it is an emotional one, as well.
At a Gulfport City Council Special Budget Meeting on Sept. 8, a resident asked audience members if they would be willing to pay higher property taxes to keep Gulfport's police dispatch and mowing services. About one third raised their hands.
For many opposed to the outsourcing plan, it is a matter of safety. Several in attendance were troubled that changes in police dispatch services could result in response time delays. Others were concerned that call takers with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office would not appreciate what makes Gulfport unique.
If the dispatch outsourcing plan makes it into the final Operating Budget for fiscal year 2012, among those interested in handling police dispatch duties would be the sheriff's office, based in Largo.
The sheriff's office has presented a proposal to Gulfport city leaders which could result in a savings of:
- $147,677 in fiscal 2012
- $305,226 in fiscal 2013
The savings is less in the first year due to the cost of conversion.
The current proposal from the sheriff's office would cost $115,000 the first year and $85,000 the second year. The cost savings includes eliminating four dispatchers and one network administrator position, according to Administrative Services Director Dan Carpenter.
"My home used to be under the sheriff's department, and I was broken into," resident Simone Frohne-Dunham told the council. "They did come, but it was not like it is in Gulfport."
Frohne-Dunham thinks delays will occur if the sheriff's office gets the contract. At the meeting, she made an emotional plea to council members.
"My mom lives in St. Petersburg," Frohne-Dunham said. "When she had a problem, she has called. … She called an hour later; they never come. That is going to happen here if you do that. Your heart and soul is in Gulfport, I trust in you for that."
Ernie Stone is a former Pinellas County dispatcher. He said that once the county has control of Gulfport's police dispatching, it would not stop there.
"This is an issue that has been coming up and coming up, and it should be put to rest," Stone said. "People were dissatisfied then; they are dissatisfied now."
"No one is going to be happy," he added. "This is a small community. Once the county gets part of your service, they will take it all."
"You think I'm kidding," Stone warned. "Just wait and see what happens."
As Council Member Jennifer Salmon sees it, the things that make Gulfport unique will not be lost by moving services to the county.
"Police are asked to help people off the floor and to help bring in packages," Salmon said. "I thought we were unusual that way."
"As weird and quirky we are in Gulfport," she added, "we are actually pretty similar to those kinds of issues to every community in the country."
Not everyone was convinced there would be changes in police service if the outsourcing plan makes it into the final budget.
"I really want to be protected as a senior citizen," Bob Newcomb said.
"I understand the fear of not having protection from a wonderful police department because we have inadequate dispatch," Newcomb said. "I can understand people's fear of that. I hope that is the motivation behind some of these folks here this evening. "
"But I also respect the research that has gone on by several people, including the chief, into the actual facts of the case," Newcomb said. "The 911 calls will be handled almost exactly the same way. They will be going to the same place. Everything will be the same."
According to Newcomb, the savings in the budget is worth the change in services.
"We will take a $395,000 expense and convert it to an $85,000 cost to the sheriff department," he said. "That indicates to me that there is an awful problem with economy of scale."
The council members agreed. In a 3-2 vote, the city council approved the first reading of the proposed operating budget, which includes outsourcing Gulfport's police dispatch and mowing services.
"I am looking towards the future when I am making this decision today," Council Member Barbara Banno said. She represents Gulfport's Ward 2.
"I am up here because of a love for the city," Banno said. "I really, really feel we can't wait one year … two years. The time to act on this is now. The decisions we make here today is to save our city."
Frohne-Dunham left the meeting questioning the timing of Gulfport's outsourcing debate.
"My daughter is at home making a 9/11 memorial," Frohne-Dunham said. "I can't believe … it's a sacred time. We can't remember the people who served?"
The second reading of the Operating Budget for fiscal year 2012 is during the next special budget meeting at Gulfport City Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday.