Maine towns and cities are trying multiple forms of collaboration and administrative consolidation, spurred in large part by a difficult fiscal environment that persists more than five years after the onset of a national recession.
A small but growing number of municipalities are considering, and sometimes adopting, a merger of the administrative functions of fire and police departments. Public safety directors are now employed by Hampden, Brewer, Westbrook, Lincoln and Jay. Millinocket also has merged the positions, but isn’t using the public safety director title.
There are likely to be more combined positions in the future. “It deserves a thoughtful look at the appropriate time,” said Michael Pardue, who has served as Westbrook’s public safety director since 2010. “But it’s not going to work for everyone.”
Brewer City Manager Steve Bost, where then-Police Chief Perry Antone became public safety director in October 2012, said that when he looked at other communities moving to a single administrator, “the driver always seemed to be cost savings.”
Discussion of the new position, which had been considered before in Brewer, intensified when Fire Chief Gary Parent gave notice that he’d be retiring.
And while public safety directors do earn more than police or fire chiefs, there usually is a significant difference from having two chiefs. In Brewer’s case, it was $36,000, and, Bost said, “We’ve been able to maintain that in the two budgets we’ve had since then.”
That’s what Gardiner City Manager Scott Morelli was looking to do when he proposed reviving a public safety director position that had been used about a decade earlier. Gardiner faces a major budget shortfall for the next fiscal year, and $28,000 in savings from a combined position is significant, he said.
The idea, Morelli emphasized, was not his. “It actually came from our firefighters’ union,” he said. “They have a lot of respect for (Police Chief) Mike Toman and they thought it might help save some other positions.”
Fire Chief Mike Minkowsky earlier announced he’d retire in March, and the city also had a vacancy in the Code Enforcement Officer, with an interim CEO working part-time.
Morelli proposed that the part-time CEO position be added to a part-time deputy fire chief, with 20 hours a week devoted to each function. He did that to avoid an operational vacuum in the fire department, which under the previous public safety director position had not had an officer in charge.
“There was the perception that it hadn’t worked well before,” Morelli said. “This time, we wanted to make sure we had all the bases covered.”
In the end, though, it didn’t work. The city council expressed concern about whether a part-time CEO would be sufficient, particularly because that official usually had a planning background as well.
“Putting all three together would probably make it difficult to find a fully qualified person,” Morelli said. After withdrawing the proposal in late February, he began working on alternative means for comparable savings.
Even where a successful transition to a public safety director is accomplished, there won’t be complete acceptance overnight, according to Joseph Rogers, Hampden’s public safety director for the past two decades, who’d previously serving as police chief for seven years. In Hampden, too, the town council began discussing a public safety director position when the fire chief post became vacant.
Initially, the council wanted to try the position for six months. “I told them that wasn’t nearly enough time,” Rogers said. “It had to be for at least two years to make it a real test.”
In fact, he said that daily life at the public safety building, where both police officers and firefighters are based, didn’t feel completely integrated for almost 10 years.
Now, though, Rogers said that there are operational efficiencies that match the council’s original intent. With nine full-time firefighters and 11 police officers, it’s a fairly small operation, he said.
While firefighters and police are dispatched to the same accident scenes or EMS calls, there’s actual job-sharing going on. “Police officers aren’t trained to go into a burning house, but they can run a pump on the engine,” Rogers said. “On a lot of fires, we need a lot of water trucked in.”
And as fire safety has improved, a much greater number of calls come in for EMS response, almost 80 percent of the total. On those calls, police and paramedics from the fire department are almost always working together.
At the time of the changeover, Rogers said, “There was some concern that firefighters might not want to be led” by a former police chief. He credits Hampden’s town managers – there have been only two during his time as public safety director – with ensuring that “growing pains” were addressed.
Hampden has been able to keep the administrative chart “fairly flat,” Rogers said. There are three fire lieutenants and three police sergeants who run the daily eight-hour shifts around the clock, while he handles administration for both.
He thinks the town could continue the arrangement in the future. “If somebody wants it to fail, it probably will,” he said. “But I’m hoping by the time I leave it will be part of the way we do things.”
Along with Gardiner, Holden, Old Town and Orono are among the municipalities that once had public safety directors, but not longer do. Mike Pardue was aware of the pitfalls when Westbrook asked to him to take the position, but he counts it as an advantage that he had familiarity with both police and fire procedures.
After serving as police chief, and then town manager, in Ogunquit, Pardue went into private practice as a consultant. It was after being called in to revamp Westbrook’s firefighting efforts that he was approached about taking over as public safety director, after the departure of the police chief.
Mayor Colleen Hilton, he recalls, was clear about what the city was looking for. “They wanted a corporate-model CEO who could oversee delivery of public safety services,” he said – something his unusual career made him qualified to do.
Westbrook has a much larger force than most other municipalities using the public safety director concept, with 41 full-time police officers and 33 firefighters.
“We have strong operational people on both sides,” Pardue said. “What the city decided it needed was someone who could put it all together.”
Pardue meets daily with his managers on both the fire and police side. And he’s diligent about maintaining a balance. While budget needs may vary from year to year, “we have to pursue initiatives for both,” he said. “I don’t have any leanings. I don’t have a favorite.”
Public safety directors are common in most of the country, less so in New England. “We haven’t made the same progress here but the concept is being explored more and more,” Pardue said.
Still, he thinks it’s far too early to consider anything like a fully merged public safety department in Westbrook. “There really are separate cultures here. People grow up aspiring to be a police officer or maybe a firefighter. They’re rarely thinking about doing both.”
One thing most managers and public safety directors say is essential is a public safety building, with both operations under one roof. Steve Bost said that already existed in Brewer. “If it hadn’t, I don’t think we would have considered it,” he said. “Otherwise, it would be too much like shuttle diplomacy.”
Bost said the actual transition from Police Chief Antone to Public Safety Director Antone was “rather seamless,” with few complaints or concerns. Antone’s style, in contrast to some, “is very much the hands-on administrator,” he said. “It’s common to see him at a fire scene and he might make a traffic stop on his way home from work.”
Bost, too, said that the shift away from traditional firefighting, “waiting around for the alarm to come” and toward more EMS calls has probably helped with the transition, too. “They’re used to going out together,” he said. “It’s not like it’s something unusual.”
Bost said that while operational changes have been minimal, it has made his job a bit simpler: “I just have to pick up the phone once, rather than twice.”
While many of the public safety directors were already on staff during the transition, that isn’t always the case. Daniel Summers, a 24-year veteran of the Skowhegan Police Department, last summer was hired as Lincoln’s first public safety director. During his years in Skowhegan, he rose from patrolman to detective sergeant and deputy chief, serving as interim chief in 2013 before deciding to take on a new challenge.
Summers said it was probably easier for him to make the transition from the police side, since there are more certifications required for someone fulfilling the police chief’s role. And in Lincoln, he benefited from the extensive experience the fire department already had among its officers.
“We have several with more than 30 years of experience. I’m not trying to tell them what to do. I’m listening and learning,” he said.
Lincoln has six full-time police officers, as well as seven full-time firefighters – the town calls them engineers – as well as a call department of 20 members.
Summers said it’s no secret that Lincoln, like many mill towns, has been under financial pressure for a long time, and he’s currently looking at a 15 percent reduction in his personnel budget. One response will be to beef up the call company.
“We’re authorized to have 50 and we need more,” he said. “Depending on the time of day, we may not have more than three or four who can actually respond.”
Lincoln, where the largest employer recently laid off half its work force, is “beyond frugal” when it comes to the budget. “There’s obviously concern that more people might be losing their jobs,” Summers said, but given the economic outlook statewide, “that’s a concern that everyone’s got to have.”
Towns in the area are making other adjustments, he said. East Millinocket has closed its EMS building, and is now renting space – and a driver – from Lincoln, whose engineers are paid $75 a call.
Summers said that, despite the budget woes, he’s optimistic about the town’s ability to continue to provide services. “Small as we are, Lincoln is a service center for a large area,” he said. “We’re being forced to work together, but we can rely on a lot of experienced people.”
As far as other towns considering a public safety director, Summers said, “I don’t think anybody should be afraid of it. As long as you really listen to your local experts, you’ll be fine.”
Douglas Rooks is a freelance writer from West Gardiner and regular contributor to the Maine Townsman.