GARDINER — The City Council delayed making a decision at its meeting Wednesday night on whether to combine the fire and police chief positions.
The proposal, first brought to councilors at their Jan 22. meeting by City Manager Scott Morelli, would combine the fire and police chief roles into a public safety position and create a joint deputy fire chief and code enforcement officer position.
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. The city expects to face a budget shortfall of at least slightly less than $600,000 in the upcoming fiscal year.
Councilors were hesitant to make a decision that would change structure of city departments significantly and lead to less time for code enforcement officer services.
Councilor Philip Hart, who objected to the idea when it was proposed at the January meeting, said he would have liked the council to be more involved in the process of crafting the proposal.
After discussing the issue for about an hour, councilors voted to delay any decision and suggested meeting in working groups to solve the ambulance service and city budget issues. The council is scheduled to meet next on Feb. 26.
Councilor Logan Johnston said he thinks the city should address the expected budget shortfall and attempts to lower ambulance costs more broadly, possibly through greater regionalization efforts or other changes throughout the budget.
Councilor Richard Heath said he generally supports the proposal, but he has reservations about cutting the code officer position.
A reason for the city to make a decision sooner rather than later is one of the ambulance service member towns is currently considering leaving the service for a private ambulance company.
The chairwoman of the Pittston Board of Selectmen, Jane Hubert, said Monday that the town probably would be deciding in the next two weeks on whether to switch ambulance services.
Morelli said the change is needed to eliminate the unpaid ambulance bills, called uncollectables, charged to the other six communities in the ambulance service.
Morelli and Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky said they’ve heard feedback from member communities that uncollectables are an annoyance and could be cause for dropping the service.
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. The totals of the unpaid bills vary from year to year, but averaged about $80,000 in all for the last four years.
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.
If the proposal passes, the city will promote Police Chief James Toman to public safety director after Minkowsky steps down in March. Toman would also be paid $15,000 more a year.