Pinellas penalizes false alarms, funds beach renourishment

02/03/09 Seán Kinane
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In an effort to reduce the costs of sheriff deputies responding to false burglar alarms, this morning the Pinellas County Commission created a false alarm ordinance that would impose a fee on residents or businesses when deputies have to respond to a false alarm.

Robert Gualtieri is the Sheriff’s Chief Deputy. “I can tell you the average cost of a deputy sheriff with benefits. Average cost is about $85,000 a year. It takes two deputies to respond to a call. The average time spent on an alarm is an average of probably 30 minutes. So it’s an hour times 40 a day, so if you do the math, it’s very expensive. It’s into some big drain on resources at a time we’re trying to eliminate unnecessary calls and be very efficient with what we’re doing. And this will definitely add to the efficiency of what we’re doing.”

Those costs add up to more than $400,000 per year responding to the county’s thousands of false alarms. Gualtieri says that’s why the Sheriff’s Office supports the new false alarm ordinance, procedures and policies.

“Last year we responded to over 14,000 false alarms in Pinellas County. Year before that it was 14,000; year before that it was 16,000. So if you do the math, we respond to an average of 40 false alarm calls a day; 99 percent of all the alarm calls we respond to are false. And usually we’re sending two deputies to all of those.”

Gualtieri says once the policy goes into place, there will be a 30-day moratorium on fines while residents and businesses register and learn about the new false alarm ordinance.

“We don’t see this as a revenue generator, we see this as an efficiency generator.”

The new ordinance would cover the unincorporated area of the county and the 12 municipalities that already conrtact for Pinellas Sheriff’s services, Gualtieri says.

Commissioner Ken Welch supports the false alarm ordinance. “I think it’s going to be an excellent deterrent. I know that St. Petersburg did this a few years ago. And just giving folks that incentive to register and get your alarm in good working order.”

During their board meeting in Clearwater Tuesday morning, Pinellas County Commissioners also approved several beach restoration projects including a controversial project at Upham Beach. There, on the north end of St. Pete Beach, five giant yellow T-shaped tubes - known as geotextile T-head groins - were installed in 2005 in order to reduce beach erosion.

Nicole Elko is the county’s Coastal Management Coordinator. “Upham Beach is sort of the poster child in Pinellas County of why beach restoration is so important. And in this case, because of the severe erosion issue, why sometimes just placing sand on the beach isn’t sufficient. So the goal of the engineering design here is to retain sand on the beach for the maximum amount of time possible to achieve the goal of beach restoration which is storm protection.”

Some beach residents and visitors have objected to the tubes, citing their cost, effectiveness, or attractiveness.

Elko says all phases of the $5 million project have already been partially funded by the state.

“And that’s actually rather unprecedented that the state would present us with a grant agreement that contains design, engineering, and construction money, especially given the fiscal situation that we’re in.”

The federal government will cover $3 million of the cost, while the state and county will each pay about $1 million. The county’s share will come from tourist development tax funds earmarked for beach improvements. The cost has been reduced, Elko says, because the pilot project has been so successful – the beach is 100 feet wider than it would have been without the structures.

“The project - as it is installed now with the erosion-control structures - has slowed erosion so significantly that the cost will probably be about 50 percent less. In other words, we’ll need 50 percent less sand this year than we normally do in a restoration cycle. The state is obviously supportive of any kind of cost-cutting measures that we can implement, but so is the Army Corps of Engineers. And this is big news, the Army Corps, as you remember, wasn’t supportive of the T-groin structures because it’s not part of the federally authorized program. … They’ve seen how successfully the t-groins have slowed the erosion and saved on cost set-up and now their considering adding it to federal program.”

Permanent erosion control structures will be installed as soon as possible at Upham Beach and two public meetings will be held to get input from residents.

A Honeymoon Beach restoration project was also approved.

The next Pinellas County Commission meeting will be Feb. 17 at 3 p.m. in Clearwater.

Pinellas County Commission

Pinellas County Sheriff

Upham Beach erosion website

Petition Site – Free Upham Beach

Pinellas Environmental Management’s Upham Beach nourishment site

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