By Dan Moffett
After running its own police department for more than a half-century, the town of South Palm Beach has decided to join forces with the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
The Town Council voted 4-1 on June 18 to approve a draft contract for services with the sheriff that would begin on Oct. 1 and run for 10 years. Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan voted against the merger agreement, saying she wanted to see the final version of the contract before considering approval.
“I just hope everybody is happy with us moving forward in this town,” said Mayor Bonnie Fischer. “It was a big step but I think it’s going to be good.”
Interim Town Manager Robert Kellogg told the council the deal could save the town as much as $1 million over the first five years of the contract. The terms call for the town paying the Sheriff’s Office $1.05 million for the first year, with 2 percent increases the following two years. The agreement sets a 5 percent limit on increases for the last seven years.
Council members credited Kellogg and Town Attorney Glen Torcivia, who oversaw Lake Worth Beach’s switch to the Sheriff’s Office a decade ago, with negotiating the 10-year commitment, an unusually long term for interlocal law enforcement agreements.
For Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, taking over South Palm Beach is a significant inroad into the county’s barrier islands. The sheriff has service contracts with 10 other municipalities, and one in the works with the newly formed Westlake community, but currently has only a limited presence along the coast.
The preliminary deal, which requires final approval from the council likely at the July 23 town meeting, would cut South Palm Beach’s department from eight uniformed officers to seven deputies. Police Chief Mark Garrison would stay on as a sheriff’s sergeant with administrative duties, and six of the town’s officers would be considered for the remaining positions in the restructured force.
“You’ll see the same people here,” sheriff’s Col. Tony Araujo said during a 90-minute presentation to the council. “They’ll just be wearing green uniforms instead of blue. The town doesn’t lose its identity.”
The draft contract does not specify which officers would be retained in the town and which might be reassigned, however. Officers would have to satisfy PBSO standards to make the transition and remain in uniform.
Compensation for the town’s officers became an issue earlier this year with the release of an analysis of starting police salaries that showed South Palm ranked last among 23 agencies surveyed in the county. Starting pay with the sheriff is about $54,200 a year, compared with the town’s current $43,500. Officers also cited the opportunity for advancement in an agency with some 4,300 full-time employees as well as better benefits as reasons for switching.
“Every officer here is in favor of this,” said Councilman Mark Weissman. “It would be fiscally irresponsible for the town not to do this.”
The difference in pay scales makes it easy to understand why South Palm Beach officers wanted to become deputies. Kellogg said the preliminary agreement calls for the sheriff to accept a year-for-year transfer of officers’ experience. An officer with 15 years’ experience in the town, for example, could be credited with 15 years’ experience with the sheriff.
For 18-year veteran Garrison, the move from chief to sheriff’s sergeant could mean a pay increase of some $30,000 to perhaps $115,000 per year. Experienced deputies earn $90,000 or more, meaning several of the town’s officers could receive raises of $20,000 or more.
Weissman, who joined the council in March, championed the sheriff’s deal. Two decades ago when he was a city commissioner in Parkland, he persuaded the community to merge its department with the Broward County sheriff’s.
Councilman Bill LeRoy also was an outspoken supporter of the move.
“You don’t take care of your people, you’re going to lose them,” LeRoy said, “They came to us and this is what they want.”
Weissman and LeRoy also made the case that merging with the sheriff would limit the town’s liability issues. The size of the agency and its budget safeguard South Palm from possible legal issues if something goes wrong.
“This is a no-brainer,” LeRoy said. “It’s definitely the way to go.”