Representatives from the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office informed the Ponte Vedra Beach Municipal Service District board that they were not interested in renewing its contract of service during an MSD budget meeting Sept. 22.
“It is not our intent to move into another contract,” Sheriff’s Office general counsel Matt Cline said.
The current contract is in effect until Sept. 30 and was the basis of an agreement that the Sheriff’s Office would provide four deputies to patrol the district in exchange for a monetary amount.
According to MSD chairman Brad Wester, the new contract agreed upon by the board includes increasing the amount paid from $335,000 to $435,000 and was something the group had been in talks with the Sheriff’s Office about for months.
“St. Johns County is growing at an incredible rate, and we’re down quite a few deputies,” said Scott Beaver, Sheriff’s Office director of patrol. “It was a hard decision.”
Beaver explained that it was based on the Sheriff’s Office wanting to provide an equal amount of public safety for the entire county.
He stated that the crime rate in the MSD is much less than other parts of the county, and after re-evaluating the contract, the Sheriff’s Office felt they could do a better job of utilizing their resources.
However, choosing to not renew the contract does not mean the MSD will not have the protection of the Sheriff’s Office moving forward.
Beaver assured the board that three deputies will continue to patrol the Ponte Vedra Beach area and they will get the same law enforcement services that the rest of the county receives.
“Not one service that we provide will change,” Beaver said. “If you call 911, we will be there.”
It was mentioned that there had been some hard feelings expressed between members of the board and the Sheriff’s Office during the recent negotiations, but Beaver acknowledged the outcome was a “business decision” and not based on personal reasons.
According to MSD chairman Brad Wester, it was a minority of the board that spoke negatively about the Sheriff’s Office and the services it had provided.
MSD trustee Gary Jurenovich, who had been the board’s liaison to the Sheriff’ Office for the past 16 years, stated that he had been receiving emails from several residents concerned about not seeing the police presence in recent years that they had been accustomed to since the MSD first partnered with the Sheriff’s Office in 1989.
“They give us excellent service, the extra we pay for is for the guys on the street,” Jurenovich said. “It’s all about the visual.”
The district is made up of about 1,240 homes that pay roughly $3.2 million to the county through ad valorem taxes. That amount does not include the additional $350,000 they had been paying to the Sheriff’s Office per the contract.
Despite the Sheriff’s Office’s stated intention to not renew, the MSD board put the contract proposal to a vote, and it passed 6-1, with John Cellucci as the lone trustee in opposition.
Cellucci opposed the contract because he questioned its lack of accountability.
“The vote was a matter of principal,” Wester said. “I made a promise to the sheriff last week that I would put it to a vote and send it signed back to him. I wanted him to know the majority approves of what the Sheriff’s Office does.”
According to Wester, if Sheriff Robert Hardwick does not agree to the contract, the next step would be for the MSD to hire off-duty deputies to provide extra patrol.
Jurenovich introduced the idea of Ponte Vedra Beach becoming its own city down the road.
“If we get there, we will need a police force,” Jurenovich said.
He proposed hiring a security detail and eventually they could make the transition to forming a police force.
The board agreed they will do research about the possibility of becoming a municipality and discuss it further at a future meeting.
The board also approved $1,383,135 for its 2021-2022 budget, which will include $853,577 in total revenues and a cash balance of $529,558. Part of the total revenues is an ad valorem tax at a millage rate of .375.
Mack McCuller opposed the final budget.