By Dan Moffett
As one, the eight police officers in South Palm Beach have come forward and asked the Town Council to allow their department to join forces with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Council members say they are surprised. And they are listening.
“As a town, we can’t be afraid to look into other options,” said Mayor Bonnie Fischer. “We can’t put blinders on.”
Councilman Mark Weissman said the town has an obligation to listen when an entire department comes forward and speaks with one voice.
“One hundred percent of the officers want this,” Weissman said. “This isn’t 30 percent or 50 percent — but 100 percent.”
The council unanimously voted on April 9 to invite both the Sheriff’s Office and the Lantana Police Department to make presentations about a possible takeover. Fischer said the presentations would be “educational” for the council and could be scheduled before summer.
Under state law, only contiguous jurisdictions can consider contracting for police services. For South Palm Beach, that means the sheriff, Lantana and the town of Palm Beach are the options.
Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan insisted that the Lantana department be considered along with the sheriff so the town could compare proposals. Fischer and Vice Mayor Robert Gottlieb voted with Jordan to include Lantana.
By consensus, the council decided to exclude Palm Beach from consideration, citing recent media reports of turmoil within the department.
Councilman Bill LeRoy said contracting with another agency would allow the town to keep the officers it now has, a group residents have praised.
“We’re not trying to get rid of anybody,” LeRoy said. “They suggested this out of the blue to us. They want to go to the Sheriff’s Office. That’s what they want. They have a lot of advantages if they go. It’ll change their lives.”
The town’s police contract became an issue in recent weeks after Police Benevolent Association representatives released a survey of salaries in Palm Beach County that showed South Palm ranked last among 23 agencies, with a starting salary of $43,500 — well below Boca Raton’s $66,168 at the top of the list and the county’s average starting pay of $50,237.
Police salaries have risen sharply throughout South Florida in the aftermath of last year’s mass shooting at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. To beef up staffing, sheriff’s offices and school police departments have hired away officers from small municipalities, driving up pay scales across the board.
Weissman, a former longtime resident in Parkland who served on its City Commission, said South Palm Beach likely would have to stretch its budget to the breaking point to raise officers’ pay and maintain its own department.
“You’re talking about a $10,000 increase just to get us into the top pack of municipalities,” he said of the salary gap. “We can’t afford as a small town what can be provided by a larger operation. We could never afford it.”
Weissman and other council members worry about staffing problems that affect officer safety. With six road officers, a chief and a sergeant, the department sometimes has only one officer on duty during weekends and nights, with no backup.
Fischer said police work has grown more dangerous, even in small towns.
“It’s a different world out there — not like it was 20 years ago,” she said. “We have liability as a police department.”
In other business, the council voted 4-1 (with Jordan dissenting) to have earlier meeting hours for the summer. Starting on May 14 and continuing through September, the town’s regular meetings will be held the second Tuesday of each month, beginning at 6 p.m. Workshops are to be scheduled as needed at 4 p.m. before the regular meetings.