Expanding community policing splits council
Town of Fort Beach Council divided over whether town should have to pay for extra services from Sheriff's Office
When it comes to a potentially expanded community policing program, several Town of Fort Myers Beach councilmembers are concerned that town taxpayers are already paying Lee County taxes for services and are now being asked for more if they want a community policing program.
While the town is serviced by the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, it would cost the town approximately $112,000 an officer (two have been suggested) if it wants to have more of a dedicated presence.
During a town council meeting this past week, Lee County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Tim Lalor told the board the program in Bonita Springs has “been in place for many years and (is) very, very successful.” Lalor said there were 16 dedicated community police officers in Bonita Springs in addition to supervisors and detectives.
Vice Mayor Rexann Hosafros said the City of Bonita Springs set a bad precedent by contracting with the county for assigned community police officers.
Hosafros responded to Lalor by stating “I’m a big supporter of you guys, I want you to know that, but I have real reservations about the community policing program not because of you – but because I don’t think it’s the right way to fund things. To me, you are a part of Lee County. Lee County should be providing you with the resources to give all parts of Lee County adequate sheriff services.”
Hosafros questioned whether the department is adequately being funded “so communities don’t have to come forth to be helping you out.”
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office has a current operating budget of approximately $204 million, which is up from $196 million a year ago.
Lalor said this would be an expanded program to “dive a little bit futher into the noise ordinance or the transients.”
Hosafros said the department should be getting more funds from the county if it needs more support.
Councilmember Dan Allers said the town will still receive service through a formula that assigns 5.3 officers to the Beach with or without the community policing program.
Hosafros said “maybe the current core program is inadequate.”
Allers said the department “can only do so much” with the resources it has and that the issue was “are we willing to invest in the things that are important to us?”
Hosafros said “it sets a precedent then builds and builds upon itself. Bonita (Springs) already started the bad precedent for us so now we are being asked to build again on that bad precedent.”
Homelessness, for example, is not unique to Fort Myers Beach, Hosafros said.
Allers said he didn’t agree with Hosafros that Bonita Springs set a bad precedent by spending more on community policing. “And they are increasing it, they are spending more money,” Allers said.
Hosafros said she feared that is what would happen in Fort Myers Beach. “You put it in place then more money goes into it, more money goes into it and the county feels even less pressure to provide the tax money they need to provide the core service. They keep shifting the burden to the small areas.”
Allers said “I don’t believe two (more) officers is enough. I think we need more.” He said he wants officers to deal with other issues, such as noise. “It’s our job to protect our citizens.”
Question of equality
Councilmember Bill Veach said he agrees with Hosafros that the community policing program is a “backdoor funding mechanism and it creates some inequality and kind of masks maybe a lack of funding that’s going on at the county level.”
Veach said other areas of the county may need more policing but the town being a relatively affluent incorporated municipality may have the ability to provide the funding. Veach said the county should be treated equally in terms of service. “If we are saying we need these enhanced services that is another way of saying our current service is inadequate,” he said.
Veach suggested using funds from alcohol sales for enhanced policing. Allers said he was open to it.
Councilmember Jim Atterholt said he believed Hosafros was correct in principle but said the Sheriff’s Office has “limited resources.” Atterholt said one way the additional full-time deputies could be of help is to direct homeless people to county programs which could make “a dent out of the homeless challenges” and benefit the homeless population.
“If we stand here on principle, which is admirable, it’s likely nothing will happen,” Atterholt said. “If we take the initiative on this, do a pilot program, move these ideas forward, we could take a look and see what kind of a difference it has. We could metric the success of it. I’m optimistic that it would be successful and have a real impact on our island.”
Mayor Ray Murphy said it’s incumbent upon the sheriff to provide the funding for policing the town. “The largest part of our tax bill is not the Town of Fort Myers Beach, it’s Lee County,” Murphy said.
“We’d like to see that money come back in enhanced services.”
Allers said the highest part of the tax bill for Fort Myers Beach residents was the fire district.
Hosafros corrected Allers. “I just pulled out my TRIM notice,” Hosafros said.
“It’s 2.9851 to the Fort Myers Beach Fire Control District and Lee County is 4.0506. We pay greatly more to Lee County than the fire district,” Hosafros said.
“I stand corrected,” Allers said.
Is Fort Myers Beach safe?
Town of Fort Myers Beach Manager Roger Hernstadt said the town already pays more for additional service during busy times of the season and holidays when requested by the Sheriff’s Office.
Atterholt said he wanted dedicated officers who will be here each day.
Allers and Veach said they wanted to hear from constituents as to whether they were willing to pay for additional services.
Murphy asked Lalor “Are the people on Fort Myers Beach safe? Do we have a crime problem?”
Lalor said “the people on Fort Myers Beach are absolutely safe. I personally come down here on my days off with my family and feel absolutely safe. I dine in the square, I go to the beach. I love the beach. It is absolutely safe.”
Murphy questioned whether if there were more officers dedicated to Fort Myers Beach if they could have prevented a man from pulling out a concealed a weapon, as happened on Memorial Day.
“Resources were not an issue down here on Memorial Day,” Lalor said.
Asked to respond to questions regarding the county’s funding of the department, Capt. Anita Iriarte said “I think we will decline.”
Lee County Board of County Commissioners Chairman Kevin Ruane could not be reached for comment.
A poll on the Fort Myers Beach Observer website in April asking if readers felt safe on Fort Myers Beach, drew 49 responses. Of those, 38 people answered yes (77.6%) and 11 (22.4%) answered no.