New year brings new changes to South Sarasota County services

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SARASOTA COUNTY, Fla. - A new era has begun in how emergencies and crimes are handled in mid and south Sarasota County. Streamlining their practices in the new year, Sheriff Tom Knight is starting to take over emergency calls and dispatch in the City of Venice. He's also closing down what's known as the South County Jail.

What's interesting is the police chief in Venice didn't want to see either of the moves. Now he says they're going to have to make it work.

Losing his dispatchers is not something Venice Police Chief Tom McNulty wanted to happen. "I'll stand behind what I said. I still prefer to have my own dispatching."

But after Sarasota County agreed to take over the service for free, Venice council members signed on.

McNulty says they've been working for months to make the transition an easy one. "We have to make sure that their equipment will talk to our equipment. Right now they have in essence one of our computers up in their dispatch center."

The biggest concern was that Venice's dispatchers know the area best.

Sheriff's spokesperson Wendy Rose says the public and officers should see no difference. "We ensure that our dispatchers are up to speed. We have hired some of their dispatchers on staff here. People should not see an interruption in service. They should not see a change in service at all."

It's not the only change. Friday there will be no more South County holding facility. The sheriff's office says what many call the South County Jail has seen a nearly 40% decrease in use in the past few years despite a million dollar budget. “It's an outdated facility. It's antiquated. We can't offer medical screening. We can't offer food service. That's why most south county arrests had to come north anyway."

That means sheriff's deputies and officers like those in North Port and Venice will now have to take each prisoner one by one to the main jail in downtown Sarasota.

"We are not going to take a knee jerk reaction to it. We are also not going to ignore the fact it may have an impact on us," says Chief McNulty.

For a town like Venice with only a few officers on at a time, it could mean fewer patrols on the streets.

McNulty says they'll just have to see. "We are going to assess it. We are going to give it a month or two and see if it has an impact at all. It may not. At the same time I have assigned a captain and a lieutenant to come up with a plan where we can re-deploy personnel."

Despite initial concerns, he’s now determined to make sure both the community and those who serve are safe. "We are going to make it work."

Now as far as the dispatchers go, the City of Longboat Key and North Port were also given the same opportunity. Longboat Key turned it down. North Port is still yet to make a decision on if they want the county to take over their calls, too.