Gardiner City Council will likely decide at its Wednesday night meeting whether to merge the fire and police chief jobs into a director of public safety position.
City staff is recommending the combined role as a way to save money and stave off potential cuts to its ambulance service, but the proposal faced some opposition from councilors at their Jan. 22 meeting.
City Council is meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.
If the proposal passes, the city will promote Police Chief James Toman to public safety director after Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky steps down in March. The city would also have to hire someone to fill another new position, a combined deputy fire chief and code enforcement officer position, to run the fire and rescue operation and handle code enforcement duties.
The change would save the city nearly $28,000 from its general fund and allow it to lower costs for its ambulance service in an effort to prevent member towns from leaving for cheaper private ambulance companies.
Some city councilors, however, said at the last meeting that the change would hurt the code enforcement service for residents, and the longest-serving councilor said the idea is similar to a failed management structure from a decade ago.
City Manager Scott Morelli said the change is needed to eliminate the unpaid ambulance bills, called uncollectables, charged to the other six communities in the ambulance service. The uncollectables are a point of criticism among member communities, Morelli said, and one town — Pittston — is considering leaving the service for a private ambulance company.
If Pittston leaves, it 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, according to Minkowsky.
The proposal also comes a time when the city is preparing to face a difficult budgeting process; the city has an expected budget shortfall of at least $540,000 for next fiscal year
Morelli said he shares the concern that the change would shrink the time available for code enforcement services, but the proposal is being driven by economic need. The positions could be restored sometime in the future if the city is in a better financial position, he said.
Morelli assured councilors at their last meeting that Toman, who would see a $15,000 pay increase if the proposal passes, would return to his old salary if he went back to being police chief.
Toman is paid $63,482 a year, and Minkowsky is paid $57,325, according to Finance Director Denise Brown.
City Councilor Philip Hart said last meeting that when the city previously combined the chief positions, discontent in the departments led to the city scrapping the role after several years.
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.
If council approves the change, the city will begin advertising for the deputy fire chief and code enforcement officer position and would hopefully have someone in place by sometime in April, Morelli said. The city has been without a full-time code enforcement officer ever since David Cichosky resigned in November.
The code officer is responsible for issuing building permits and enforcing land use ordinances, safety codes, building codes, state statutes and regulations associated with land development.
The council is also scheduled to:
â€¢ consider approving a special events permit for a 5-kilometer race for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Gardiner;
â€¢ consider renewing the liquor license for The Depot Sports Bar;
â€¢ consider approving a General Assistance ordinance amendment;
â€¢ hear a presentation from Chuck Applebee, the director of the wastewater treatment plant, on his efforts to find grant funding for converting the plant from heating oil to thermal effluent;
â€¢ consider paying $696 to rejoin the Maine Service Center Coalition.