February 24

Gardiner city manager nixes plan to merge fire and police chief roles

City Manager Scott Morelli said he’ll propose an alternative plan to save money from both the city’s general fund and the ambulance budget.

By Paul Koenig pkoenig@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli plans to withdraw his proposal to merge the city’s fire and police chief roles and will instead offer an alternative cost-cutting plan at the City Council meeting Wednesday.

The proposal would have saved the city nearly $28,000 from its general fund by combining the two jobs into one public safety position and creating a joint deputy fire chief and code enforcement officer position. But it faced opposition at the last two council meetings from councilors who voiced concerns about the shrunken code enforcement position and the ability of someone to handle those duties while also serving in the deputy fire department role.

The council is scheduled to meet 7 p.m. Wednesday at City Hall.

Morelli declined to give the details of his new proposal Monday because he hadn’t yet presented it to councilors, but he said it would still accomplish the original goals of saving money from both the city’s general fund and the ambulance budget. He wouldn’t say how much the proposal will save.

The city is expecting to face nearly a $600,000 budget shortfall, and possibly more, in the next fiscal year.

A major reason for lowering ambulance service costs is that city officials are concerned the city could lose some of the ambulance service partner communities to cheaper private ambulance companies. One of the member towns, Pittston, may leave the regional service this year for North East Mobile Health Services.

A town leaving the partnership could cause a domino effect, leading to significant cuts to the service, Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky has told councilors. If Pittston leaves the ambulance service, the city would lose nearly $70,000 in lost revenue and about $10,000 less in membership fees, according to Minkowsky.

The chairwoman of the Pittston select board, Jane Hubert, said the town has been satisfied with the ambulance service from Gardiner, but it also has to consider the bottom line. She said the Budget Committee approved enough money to cover the Gardiner ambulance service, but its residents will vote on how much money to allocate at the annual Town Meeting in March.

Morelli’s new proposal, like the public safety director proposal, would allow the city to eliminate the unpaid ambulance bills, called uncollectables, charged to all communities in the service, he said. Those have been a point of criticism amongst member communities, Morelli said. The original proposal would have raised the annual fees charged to each community slightly, but most towns would have still saved several thousand dollars a year.

City councilors, however, were hesitant to make a decision that would have significantly changed the structure of city departments and led to less time for code enforcement officer services. Some said they were concerned that it would be difficult to find someone with both firefighting and code officer experience to fill the new deputy fire chief and code enforcement officer position.

“We want something the majority of the council can support,” Morelli 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 revenue by billing individuals for service, but the municipalities are responsible for the unpaid bills, which 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.

The original proposal called for promoting Police Chief James Toman to public safety director when Minkowsky steps down in March and for Toman to receive a $15,000 a year pay bump.

It would have essentially cut the formerly full-time code enforcement position in half to allow the city to hire someone with firefighting experience to handle day-to-day fire department duties like managing the staff and responding to fires. The city has been employing a temporary code enforcement officer on a part-time basis ever since the full-time code officer, David Cichosky, resigned in November

After the proposal first faced objections from councilors at the Jan. 22 meeting, Morelli said he understood the concerns but was “not sure there really is another solution.”

Paul Koenig — 207-621-5663 pkoenig@centralmaine.com Twitter: @paul_koenig
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