Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Sunday, January 24, 2010
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Bahama Village to lose focused police force
City Commission has last say on cut

Susan Lennox was baking cookies in her Terry Lane home Friday for the neighborhood children in Bahama Village.

The retired building materials distributor and her husband, George, a retired magazine circulation manager, moved to the neighborhood seven years ago from Little Torch Key.

"Well, I made cookies for them awhile back and now they come by all the time and say, 'Mrs. Sue, can you make us more?'" she said with a smile. "So now I'm obligated, I guess, but I don't mind. They're good kids, most of them. When one of them gets in trouble, it just breaks my heart."

The couple is among a dozen or so Bahama Village residents who have met on Thursday nights for the last two weeks to discuss the fate of a popular Key West police program that some residents say has drastically improved living conditions in the neighborhood by way of increased officer presence and drug arrests.

"When we bought this house, people told us we were crazy," Lennox said. "They said, 'You don't want to live in Bahama Village.' But the people here take care of us and we haven't regretted it. But if I'm honest, I'll tell you when we first moved in I had almost a direct line with the police. The drug dealing was more than I could bear. I didn't like to go out at night. The difference now is like night and day."

Cutting the force

The Police Department and Bahama Village are lobbying the Key West City Commission to keep funding the salaries for four officers dedicated to the community, which an advisory committee effectively has cut.

The Bahama Village Redevelopment Advisory Committee (BVRAC) this month allocated only $50,000 to fund two officers for two months after September, when its new budget cycle begins. Police Chief Donie Lee had requested $313,000 to maintain the special force, which has been funded for the past five years.

The TIF officers are so-called because they are funded through tax increment financing (TIF), property taxes collected in Bahama Village that stay in Bahama Village, specifically for law enforcement and brick-and-mortar improvements. A drop in property values has cut those taxes nearly in half for next year, from an annual average of almost $800,000.

"Let's say this happened today and my funding went away right now, today," Lee said. "I could absorb those four positions because I have seven vacancies right now, but I certainly hope to have those seven vacancies filled by September. If the money is not there, either through TIF or the general fund, then I have to let those four officers go."

For residents who attended the recent meetings, the TIF officers have been a godsend to those who have long complained about open-air drug dealers who historically have plagued the area.

The TIF officers made 399 arrests -- 14 of those high-level drug trafficking cases -- last year alone, seizing $52,000 in drug money and four vehicles, according to police records.

Part of that success is owed to Lee's decision two years ago to have TIF officers work alongside the Special Operations detectives in undercover roles in addition to performing typical uniformed police duties.

TIF officers are a constant presence in the neighborhood and are ordered to leave only in case of an emergency, such as a large wreck or officer down in another part of town, Lee said. Sometimes a drug investigation that starts in Bahama Village takes them to another part of town, but for the most part the TIF officers patrol only Bahama Village.

"I have no doubt the program is working," Lee told residents. "I get the phone calls. I get the e-mails. I know what the officers are doing."

Tapping general funds

Jerry Curtis, a BVRAC member and lifelong Bahama Village resident, is a strong supporter of the TIF officers, but some political maneuvering might be needed to keep it, he said.

"Every project that came before the TIF board had merit, in my opinion," Curtis said. "There's no doubt tough decisions were made. It's very hard to find funding for just one project. Everything has to be done in phases. What was clear is that the full police amount, $313,000, would have wiped our budget clean."

A proposed solution, brought by Curtis and neighborhood resident Ralph Major, is to hit up the City Commission for an extra $260,000 and fund the TIF officers out of the city's general fund.

Key West City Manager Jim Scholl was receptive to the idea.

"If we have to do it out of the general fund, I can try to make it a priority," he told residents.

His promise to try echoes the Catch-22 that BVRAC leaders face with multiple pressing needs. Improvements to the Union Lodge, American Legion Post and parks have been needed for years, but the question raised by some residents was more succinct: If it is unsafe to walk the streets, what good is a nice park?

"I'm very pleased with the job these officers have done," said resident Robert Cobb. "The job they've done the last two years is phenomenal. But it seems clear we're going to have to lobby the commissioners to pull money out of the general fund. This is too important. Safety should be our utmost concern, not just for our neighborhood, but for our city."

The funding issue puts Lee in the position of having to assure residents that no matter what happens to the TIF officers, he is committed to keeping Bahama Village as safe as any other area of Key West.

But Lee said he is a realist.

"I don't know what the impact will be, but if you cut four people, it's hard to imagine that there will be no impact," he said. "My message is that there's a reality here that we have to face, and I'm not trying to spread fear, but this issue -- the future of the TIF police program -- needs to be fully vetted and discussed by everyone in the neighborhood, not just board members."

Lee leaned back in his office chair.

"I don't care where the funds come from," he said. "They're just needed."

A native Key Wester, Lee said there is too much misinformation about Bahama Village. He wants to change that and he feels the successes of the TIF officers are a direct reflection of strides made over the past few years.

"People need to realize that what happens to Bahama Village affects every other part of the island," Lee said.

It takes a village

Brenda Johnson, manager of Johnson's Grocery at the corner of Petronia and Thomas streets, said police patrolling the neighborhood are friendly and she's noticed they interact with residents more so than in the past.

"They're more personal," she said. "They stop in and get to know residents. They do security checks, and when we're not here, they leave their card to let us know they were here. I'd say they're just more visible, and that's curbed a lot of the drug activities."

Johnson said Bahama Village also has changed. The neighborhood is more diverse. Residents are more observant. Johnson said she was mindful that other areas of Bahama Village need money, too.

"I am concerned about the TIF police leaving, but there's a lot of things that have to be taken care of. I know we need the police, but we can't let the VFW fall down. So the question becomes, how do we stretch the money everywhere? I don't know what the solution is."

Major was adamant that the TIF police force stay on patrol, regardless of the funding source.

"None of these renovations do any good without good policing," he said. "If people are afraid to come here, it doesn't matter how much we renovate."

Susan Lennox no longer finds small plastic baggies scattered around her property, she said, smiling again.

"Donie (Lee) is a local boy and he knows the territory," she said. "He knew what had to be done and it's been wonderful. My biggest fear is that we'll become complacent and the boys from Miami and Homestead will come back to our corners."

Lennox emphasized that Bahama Village's drug problem is not homegrown, but a product of mainland crooks capitalizing on Key West's tourist population.

"Let me tell you, those folks don't live here. They don't know me from a hill of beans and showed no respect," she said. "I worry for our local children with those folks hanging around. Now I know we need to take care of our parks and buildings, but without police presence I'll continue to worry for our local children. That's why we need to speak up."

alinhardt@keysnews.com

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