Delegation withdraws bill on ASO, GPD consolidation
Published: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 12:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 1, 2011 at 12:15 a.m.
The county's five-member legislative delegation pulled the plug on a bill to study the potential merger of the Gainesville Police Department into the Alachua County Sheriff's Office because of concerns that the ill will surrounding the proposal and unanswered questions of timing and funding would doom the process.
Their unanimous decision Monday followed a more than two-hour meeting that included far more public opposition than support for consolidation.
State Sen. Steve Oelrich R-Cross Creek, the former county sheriff, argued that consolidation could save millions of dollars and was a "really good idea as far as bang for the taxpayers' buck."
Still, Oelrich suggested that lawmakers withdraw the bill given the "animosity" surrounding it and its potential to spark "turf guarding."
Consolidation, Oelrich added, was a "good idea whose time has not come."
"Nor may it ever with the divisions we saw here today and in our community," he added.
The Police Benevolent Association, which until mid-January represented sheriff's patrol deputies, put forth the bill. The legislation would have created a 30-member committee to "study and develop" a unification plan from July until January 2012.
If the committee recommended consolidation, a referendum would have gone to voters with majority approval needed within the city of Gainesville and countywide for consolidation to occur.
Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe argued that a proposal rising from the union and going through the Legislature circumvented city officials and residents. That, Lowe said, was a "fundamental violation of the concept of home rule."
"A police department is one of the fundamental aspects of municipal government, and it is important that we are able to provide law enforcement and public safety in a manner consistent with our community's character," Lowe said after the meeting.
Sheriff Sadie Darnell, a proponent of consolidation, took issue with how quickly the Gainesville City Commission came out in opposition to any further study or discussion of consolidation. "My biggest disappointment is with the city of Gainesville," she said. "They turned what should have been a neutral collaborative discussion into a contentious issue from the get go."
More than two dozen members of the public addressed legislators. Several city residents supported the Gainesville Police Department and did not want legislators and the union driving an issue they felt should come from City Hall — if it was ever pursued.
Dorris Gennaro, a Police Department volunteer, said talk of a city covered by the Sheriff's Office conjured up images of the small town world of the "Andy Griffith Show." A city the size of Gainesville, she said, needs its own department.
Rep. Chuck Chestnut, D-Gainesville, and Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City, both said consolidation had merits. But they said the show of opposition Monday and questions of how much the study would cost — and where the money would come from — kept them from moving forward. Chestnut also said the committee would not have adequate time to deal with complicated issues of pensions and salaries.
PBA President Brandon Kutner said the union brought forth the proposal because of a belief that neither the City Commission nor the County Commission adequately funded law enforcement.
Oelrich, who peppered many speakers with questions, asked Kutner how much of a factor Gainesville's annexations of property, which reduce the Sheriff's Office coverage area and its tax base, had to do with the proposal.
In 2009, Darnell publicly opposed the proposed annexation of approximately 2,000 acres east of Gainesville because of the negative impact it could have on the agency's budget. Agency employees also formed a political action committee to fight the annexation, which eventually was voted down.
Kutner said the consolidation proposal "had nothing to do with annexation" but acknowledged that annexations resulted in a loss of revenue. While the PBA was the driving force behind the bill, the area's other union, the Fraternal Order of Police, opposed it.
Contact Christopher Curry at 374-5088 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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