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Shores police chief pledges top service with smaller staff

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of June 7, 2012)
Photo of new police chief Robert Stabe

The day after Indian River Shores Public Safety Director Robert Stabe was sworn in he had 25 percent fewer full-time employees, a smaller budget and, hopefully a department with much-improved morale.

Despite the major changes, Chief Stabe promises to deliver the same top-notch service to Shores residents as they’ve come to expect over the years.

Five senior members of the department retired last week, their shifts and duties to be covered by per-diem public safety officers making $18 per hour. Initial numbers floated estimate that the move could save town taxpayers close to $400,000 per year.

The retirees, whose salaries ranged from $72,000 to $123,000 per year plus benefits, have been invited to come back and work shifts at the lower $18-per-hour rate with no benefits. Should they opt simply to retire with the four months’ incentive pay they brokered with the town, it will leave the department without five of its most experienced, career law enforcement, fire and paramedic personnel.

“It’s a challenge, but I don’t see it as insurmountable,” said Stabe.

Town Manager Richard Jefferson and Mayor Tom Cadden had both said for months that spirits were low in the 20-member department.

Worries over budget cuts and the possible reduction of the town’s pension benefits had long-time public safety personnel more than a little anxious, Stabe said.

The promise of a comfy retirement is often what keeps police and fire personnel motivated through long careers of public service. Those with enough years to get out and cash in wanted to retire with their benefits intact, before any big were made by the Town Council.

For the officers remaining, all but two of whom are represented by a union, Stabe said the hope is things will settle down – that the department has taken the required hit and the pressure will be off to revamp pensions and other benefits.

What they don’t have to hope for, however, are four other higher ranking positions to open up, making way for promotions and pay raises. Only one lieutenant will be moved in to fill an open spot. The balance of the supervisory positions will not be filled.

“I think the employees realize that things are changing, that the economy is changing,” Stabe said.

Stabe, in a good-faith effort to show that he’s sharing the pain, accepted the chief’s job at $20,000 less than the $123,000 paid to his predecessor, Bill Schauman.

A 22-year employee of the town, Stabe was promoted to the department’s second-highest rank of captain in 2009. He has lived in Vero Beach for more than 40 years. He holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Warner University, is a 2007 graduate of the FBI National Academy for law enforcement officers and is triple certified as a police officer, paramedic and firefighter.

He said the next few months will be a “period of assessment” while he looks at where the department has been, its strengths and weaknesses and where he wants to lead the officers.

Off the top of his head, he said he’d like to resuscitate the town’s volunteer program, as he said many of the stalwarts have died or become too ill to remain active.

“We lost them and we haven’t really replaced those volunteers and I would like to do that,” he said.

Greater public awareness is also on Stabe’s list of things to do. He said when Schauman took over as chief, the public safety staff launched a busy schedule of speaking engagements and presentations for neighborhood groups and homeowner associations, talking about town services and about current issues of concern related to public safety. When they had hit every group in town, interest in the program waned.

“It’s been a few years and I think it’s time to do that again,” he said. “We have a lot of new residents in the town.”

What Stabe probably won’t be doing again is running for elected office.

In 2008, Stabe mounted a campaign for sheriff. When asked if he would use his promotion to chief as a launching pad for a future bid for the sheriff’s office, he laughed.

“I guess I thought it was an opportunity to make a difference in a larger agency,” Stabe said, adding that he had a lot of well-intentioned friends and associates egging him to run. In hindsight, it was a mistake, he said, and something he does not intend to repeat. He raised $3,650 in a race where Deryl Loar amassed a $209,000 warchest.

Stabe ended up refunding most of what supporters had given him after he failed to gain any traction in the Republican primary in August 2008.

For the next few years anyway, Stabe said he’s more than happy to head up the Shores public safety team. He described the department as “awesome” and was excited to tell the town council last week that it was re-accredited by the Commission of Florida Law Enforcement.

“It means we’ve lived up to every standard and policy we have in place,” Stabe said, adding he was very proud of the achievement. The department must undergo re-accreditation every three years.