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Fort Myers, Lee County law enforcement merger on ballot

Jul. 19, 2013

The Fort Myers city clerk’s office this week approved a referendum for November’s ballot that, if voters approve, would merge the city police department and county sheriff’s office.

Political action committee Find a Better Way for Lee County started a petition in February 2012 to bring the consolidation to a vote. This month, the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office confirmed the petition had enough signatures — a claim the city also had to independently verify.

That happened Wednesday.

“We’re going to start working on the ballot language,” City Clerk Marie Adams said.

The referendum, which would allow the Lee County Sheriff’s Office to absorb the Fort Myers Police Department, needs a majority vote to pass. That means 50 percent of the vote, plus one vote, Adams said.

The transition into one law enforcement agency must be completed within one year of certification by the Lee County Supervisor of Elections office, according to the referendum text provided to the city.

The Fort Myers Police Department does not support the referendum.

“It’s going to come down to cost and services,” spokeswoman Shelly Flynn said in an email. “We have 242 employees, 174 of them are sworn officers. Anything less will be a reduction of services.”

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office has not commented to The News-Press on the referendum. Sheriff Mike Scott has followed a policy since February 2012 of restricting comment to The News-Press.

Raimond Aulen, former chairman of the political action committee sponsoring the referendum, resigned his position following announcement of his candidacy for mayor. Aulen said the consolidation would save taxpayers the cost of the police department’s annual budget, which is just under $30 million for the current fiscal year.

The police department takes issue with Aulen’s cost-saving estimate.

“Preliminary figures do not support the dollar savings that may have misled many citizens into signing the petition,” Flynn said in an email. “As the numbers are studied and released, voters will need to educate themselves to avoid making decisions based on assumptions.”

Saving money isn’t the only motivation behind the referendum, Aulen said.

“We also have issues with crimes in the area,” he said, “so we’re looking at that situation as well. We don’t want to be the murder capital of Florida.”

The Fort Myers Police Department budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year is about $29.8 million, and the department served a population of 66,385 in 2012, according to the police department and Florida State Bureau of Economic Research.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year is about $137.7 million, and the office served a population of 638,029 in 2012, according to the sheriff’s office.

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