GARDINER — The city is considering a proposal to combine the fire and police chief roles into a public safety director position, but not all city councilors support the idea.
City Manager Scott Morelli said money saved from the proposed change, which would also combine the code enforcement officer position with a new deputy fire chief position, is needed to lower costs for the city’s ambulance service to prevent member towns from leaving for private ambulance companies, forcing the city to make more substantial cuts.
The City Council, which discussed the issue for more than an hour at its meeting last week, will likely vote on the proposal at its next meeting, Wednesday, Feb. 12. Some councilors voiced strong opposition to the proposal because of concerns it mirrors a failed management structure from a decade ago and concerns it could negatively impact code enforcement services.
The opportunity to combine the two positions arose because Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky is stepping down at the end of March. The city’s code enforcement officer resigned in November, and the city is examining whether the full-time position is needed or whether it could be folded into other roles.
The proposal from city staff calls for Police Chief James Toman to assume Minkowsky’s old role, with a salary increase of $15,000. The proposal would create a new position of deputy fire chief/code enforcement officer.
Morelli said the benefits of the proposal are twofold: it would save money for the city, which is expected to face a budget shortfall of at least $540,000 next fiscal year, and it would preserve the city’s ambulance service. Savings from the change would allow the city to eliminate the fees charged to cover unpaid bills — a point of criticism from the six member communities, one of which is considering leaving for a private company.
“We do have the real fear that we’re going to lose some of our partner communities,” Morelli said Thursday.
City Councilor Philip Hart said when the city previously combined the chief positions, discontent in the departments led to the city scrapping the role after several years. The city also recently reversed its decision to join the public works and wastewater director positions, he said.
“I just can’t see us heading down the road again to find out two years from now, it stays the same,” Hart said at the meeting.
Gardiner previously had a director of public safety position between 1999 and 2002, according to Toman. The police chief at the time took over the role of fire chief on a interim basis before the city made it a permanent position. The fire department also had an assistant to the chief while the combined system was in place.
Morelli said that although the system might not have worked in the past, the structure would be different because there would be a deputy fire chief to handle more day-to-day duties, including responding to emergencies.
“One of the reasons this works is we have someone like Chief Toman, who we feel comfortable doing this,” Morelli said. “And frankly, the firefighters we talked with felt comfortable about Chief Toman stepping into this role.”
City Councilor Patricia Hart, no relation to Philip, is concerned with the change because it would reduce the time the person in the joint code enforcement officer and deputy fire chief position is available for code enforcement and assistance.
The code officer issues building permits and enforces land use ordinances, safety codes, building codes, state statutes and regulations associated with land development. The person in the position would also be responding to emergencies and overseeing the fire department.
“I just can’t do this,” Patricia Hart said at the meeting. “I think we have a huge problem that we need to solve with fire and police, and I think we’re throwing code enforcement and planning under the bus.”
Hart said she thinks the city should explore the issue further and would be open to finding other ways to reduce the costs of the ambulance service to prevent member communities from leaving.
The first could be the town of Pittston, which is considering a proposal from North East Mobile Health Services, a private company that provides ambulance service to municipalities.
Pittston leaving would force Gardiner to cut back on its service, possibly eliminating rescue personnel, to make up for the nearly $70,000 in lost revenue and about $10,000 less in membership fees, Minkowsky said.
Gardiner ambulance service provides rescue and emergency service to Chelsea, Farmingdale, Litchfield, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner, along with Gardiner. Annual service fees usually average $8,000 to $12,000 for most towns and are calculated by use and population.
The ambulance service brings in money by billing individuals for service, but the municipalities are responsible for unpaid bills, called uncollectables. The totals of the unpaid bills vary from year to year. The amount billed to the municipalities totaled nearly $114,000 in 2013, up significantly from about $66,000 the year before, according to figures provided by Morelli.
Instead of charging all the member municipalities for the unpaid bills, the city would use the almost $42,000 in projected savings from the position consolidations and raise the base fee charged to each community to cover the uncollectables. That would save most towns several thousand dollars, besides Chelsea, which would about break even, Morelli said.
North East, with a base in Dresden, offered to charge Pittston a flat fee of $5,000 and the town wouldn’t be responsible for unpaid bills, according Pittston Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Jane Hubert.
She said Pittston paid about $10,000 last year to Gardiner on top of about $8,000 in unpaid bills. The town’s experience with Gardiner in terms of safety has been excellent, Hubert said, but being responsible for the unpaid bills has been a holdup for some on the select board and budget committee. She expects the town’s budget committee to make a decision in the next couple of weeks.
Morelli said he had hoped the City Council would approve the change Wednesday night, to fill the upcoming fire chief vacancy sooner and to be able to eliminate the uncollectables before Pittston makes its decision.
He said it’s true not having a full-time code enforcement officer would be a loss for the city. The change wouldn’t impact revenue from permits, but the code enforcement officer wouldn’t be as available to the public to assist in approving permits and investigating complaints, Morelli said.
However, he said he and city staff evaluated other options for the position and he’s “not sure there really is another solution.”
In addition to possible problems with a merger, Philip Hart is concerned that the city could be stuck with a higher salaried position if it later decides to go back to the current organization.
Morelli said that isn’t an issue because the new contract with Toman would stipulate that the higher salary would only be for the director of public safety position.
Toman is paid $63,482 a year, and Minkowsky is paid $57,325, according to Finance Director Denise Brown.
Overall, the change would save the city about $27,000, including the money saved from eliminating uncollectables, Morelli said. He expects the budget shortfall to still spur a tax property tax increase.
Mayor Thomas Harnett said at the meeting Wednesday he supports the proposal because it would save the city money and help eliminate uncollectables, which he said will drive other communities away.
“I am very concerned about saving our fire department. I am very concerned about having a rescue service available,” he said. “This is a proposal that may not be forever, but sometimes desperate times call for desperate measures.”