Voters rejected a similar proposal eight years ago, but the Fort Myers City Council will soon discuss a merger of the police department into the Lee County Sheriff’s Office.
City Councilmember Fred Burson has put the item on the council agenda for the council’s nest meeting on Monday, May 17.
Burson said Thursday that he wants to gauge whether combining the police departments would promote efficiency while reducing costs.
“My thought is that if the police chief is leaving and we are going to have to hire a new police chief, why not just see if the sheriff’s department might be willing to take it over,” Burson said. “It would be a cost savings if the police are combined.”
Chief Derrick Diggs has applied for a least one job outside of Florida, but has not tendered a resignation nor said he would leave the post.
News of Burson’s proposal to open discussion about a possible merger began to leak Wednesday night, after a meeting involving city officials to set the agenda for the next city council meeting.
“Somebody at city hall obviously leaked it, and they’ve been calling me since (Wednesday) night,” Burson said.
Fort Myers City Council is to meet at 4:30 p.m. Monday, May 17 in the council chamber at city hall.
The concept of merging the city police into the sheriff’s department went before voters in 2013 but was rejected by a wide margin.
However since that vote, the city has changed its election cycle to coincide with even year elections, which have more offices contested, more referenda, and a higher turnout.
Burson calls the coming discussion exploratory.
“I just want to see if there is a desire on the part of council to discuss it and, if they are, to look into it financially and otherwise.
Experts in the field, however, believe Diggs is guiding the department into the future and a merger could be harmful.
“I think that this is a horrible idea,” said David J. Thomas, a research fellow with the National Police Foundation of Police Counseling Services, based in Gainesville. “Under Chief Diggs, FMPD has recovered from its misdeeds of the past and (is) moving in a very positive direction.”
Thomas said residents should remember that they would give up control of local policing.
“Keep in mind that a police department is accountable to its community and when a Chief fails to address the needs of the community he/she can be fired,” he said. “… When a Sheriff’s Office takes over, the Sheriff will argue that he/she is accountable to the citizens. However, the Sheriff is up for election every four years and it is difficult to get rid of one when the agency isn’t performing.”
He pointed out the average police chief’s tenure is three to five years.
Supporters of a merger are likely to cite the city’s unfunded pension liability for the police union. Unfunded liabilities are caused when contributions by employees and the city do not reap enough money to pay pensions that will ultimately come due.
Mayor Kevin Anderson, who has a police department pension from his career with the department, has said that funding for the pension has increased substantially in recent years.
Anderson said the pension funds investments have performed well, helping to offset some of the liabilities.
Burson said the Florida retirement system may be a better option for rank-and-file police officers.
“I think it offers the individual officers a little big better security,” Burson said. I don’t think the Florida Retirement System is going to fail any time soon.”
Legislation filed by State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, would have prohibited the Florida Retirement System from enrolling new employees. City police officers could be considered new employees who are ineligible, under state law, for FRS pensions.
Rodrigues bill died in the House State Affairs Committee after passing the Senate on a 24-16 vote.
While he characterizes his inquiry as exploratory, Burson said the possible departure of Diggs makes it an appropriate time to look at the way law enforcement is organized.
Diggs has applied for the chief’s job with the police department in Columbus, Ohio.
“With Chief Diggs leaving, it might be time to look at whether we would have the county take it over,” Burson said. “Bonita Springs, Estero and Fort Myers Beach seem to do all right with the sheriff.”
Thompson, however, said there is a better option than the sheriff’s office.
“In this instance, Fort Myers City fathers need to find another change agent like Chief Diggs to keep the agency moving forward,” he said.
The public information officer for the Fort Myers Police Department issued a statement Thursday afternoon concerning the agenda item, indicating it had not been informed of the discussion:
Regarding the item discussing the Lee County Sheriff’s Office taking over the duties of policing within the City of Fort Myers, we have not been made aware of this prior to the inquiry or by the City of Fort Myers. Our department will continue to focus on our mission of reducing violent crime, lower than the 51% reduction already achieved, and engaging with our community without outside distractions.
Bonita, Estero and Fort Myers Beach are incorporated communities that can enter into interlocal agreements with the sheriff’s office to handle law enforcement issues within their boundaries. Cape Coral has its own police force.