“There is an elephant in the room no one wants to talk about,” Holmes Beach Commissioner Al Robinson said as the Dec. 14 commission work session wrapped up.
Robinson handed out a follow-up statement to the commission regarding comments he made at a November work session on the city’s police department. In the statement, he said he was elected on his promise to lower taxes, and that his comments were not an attack on police personnel, but rather the “gravy-train system” that developed over the past 15 years.
“Our cost is $800,000 a year more than it should be if we ran our police department like our sister cities to the north and south,” said Robinson. “You know we have our heads in the sand. We’re just spending money like crazy and for no justification.”
“Is Bradenton Beach crazy? Is Anna Maria crazy? Or are we crazy?” he asked. “Because somebody is doing it wrong.”
Robinson claimed that the other Island cities do not have a police office staffed on a regular basis and should people need to speak to the Bradenton Beach police chief, they’d have to reach him in his patrol vehicle.
According to Robinson the cost of having nine employees in the police department office and carrying the police pension plan are reasons the city pays more than its sister cities. Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria, he said, have no office staff and no overhead. Anna Maria is policed by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office.
As for the pension plan having an unfunded liability, Mayor Rich Bohnenberger said Anna Maria and Bradenton Beach don’t have police pension plans.
“Someone is doing it right, and someone is not,” Robinson said.
In an hour-long discussion, commissioners weighed in on upcoming state pension reform legislation, the lack of funding or manpower from the county to patrol the public beach and that, according to commissioner David Zaccagnino, residents pay more in taxes to the MCSO than they do for all of Holmes Beach city services.
Commission Chair Sandy Haas-Martens said residents voted years ago by ballot initiative to maintain a city police dispatch when the Island Communications Center was disbanded.
As Haas-Martens attempted to wrap up the meeting again, Commissioner John Monetti spoke on the police department budget.
“The discussion was precipitated by a statement that it is the elephant in the corner that no one wants to talk about,” Monetti said. “And I’d like to offer that it has been talked about — appropriately — during the budget process and just because Commissioner Robinson wants to continue to talk about it beyond that appropriate venue in this way does not reflect a lack of concern on others’ parts, as implied.”
Key Royale resident Andy Sheridan said he had reviewed the data provided by Robinson and questioned the commissioner’s intent.
“There seems to be some indication that [Robinson] feels that something is being mismanaged or something of that nature. I think the white elephant in the room is that [Robinson] hasn’t come right out and said exactly what he wants to do about this.”
“He is providing what he believes is background information,” continued Sheridan. “But what are you really looking to do? Are you looking to eliminate our police chief?… Some personnel carrying a badge?… Our communication center?… The folks that do the paperwork so our officers can stay on the street? … The folks we call at the dispatch?”
As he grew visibly frustrated, Sheridan continued, “What do you want to do about it? Just come right out and say it.”
Robinson said he thinks the city should research how neighboring cities are providing police services more efficiently than Holmes Beach. “Why is the cost of putting a man in a patrol car $171,000 a year more for us compared to our neighbors?” he asked.
Sheridan questioned Robinson’s calculations, asking if he considered all the people working in the department or breaking down the budget to only reflect patrol officer salaries.
“I took the total cost operations in Anna Maria and divided by the number of people on patrol. I did the same for Bradenton Beach and Holmes Beach. It’s a simple math problem,” Robinson responded. “I’m comparing apples to apples.”
Monetti, however, said Robinson was comparing apples to oranges. “They really are separately set up departments and when you say these are real numbers that you throw out there, well I would respond that they’re numbers you just throw out there. You have a history of taking numbers and, if these are indeed real numbers, it will be the first time I can recall that you have thrown out a number that is a real number.”
“In my mind you like to play with numbers,” Monetti continued. “You throw things out as if they are facts. You take them out of context and you apply them and it is detrimental to the overall conversation — I believe.”
Sheridan left the commission with the final word.
“I think you need to get involved with the treasurer from each city to determine how each organization structures its budget rather than making a broad stroke at a number and attempting to compare that.
“Commissioner Robinson ran on lowering taxes and being fiscally responsible. We need ways to address and correct these issues instead of continuing to disseminate information that may, or may not, be accurate.”