January 27

Proposal to merge Gardiner fire and police chief roles meets opposition

City is looking for ways to lower costs for its ambulance service to keep member towns from leaving, and combining the public safety jobs is one proposed solution.

By Paul Koenig pkoenig@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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.

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