BANGOR, Maine — In what could be a divisive decision, city councilors will vote later this month or early next month on whether to seek the services of an outside consultant to review Police and Fire department operations.
Council Chairman Richard Stone said he hatched the idea from recent budget talks involving councilors and Police Chief Ron Gastia. The biggest item of discussion centered on what Stone considered high departmental overtime costs, which totaled more than $800,000 in the 2009 fiscal year.
On Monday, members of the council’s Finance Committee voted to send the request to consider hiring a consultant to the full council, but the vote will not be unanimous.
“I can’t support this under any circumstances,” said Councilor Pat Blanchette, who is not a member of the Finance Committee but attended Monday’s meeting. “We seem to be questioning the integrity of our staff.”
The initial discussion focused on reviewing the Police Department’s operations, but the full council will consider a resolve that would ask consultants to look at both police and fire. That vote is likely to come next Monday or during the first council meeting in August.
Gastia attended Monday and said he would keep an open mind about having a consultant review his department. On several occasions the chief offered reminders of the complexities of police work.
“In general terms, we’re asked to do everything we can with what we’ve got,” he said. “But there is no real direction or priorities from the council.”
Fire Chief Jeff Cammack did not attend the meeting.
The three members of the Finance Committee — Cary Weston, David Nealley and Richard Bronson — all supported the idea of hiring a consultant. With Stone, those four all have advocated for incorporating more private sector principles into the public sector.
Although that philosophy did not come up explicitly on Monday, Gastia seemed to anticipate it.
“It’s important to realize that public safety is a unique profession that has complexities unlike any other entity,” he said. “You can’t look at it like a business.”
On the overtime issue, Gastia said most of that is tied up in court appearances by his officers and filling shifts left vacant by training, workers’ compensation, sick days and vacation. Blanchette defended the overtime total as the opposite of frivolous.
Stone said his intent was not to usurp control from Gastia or Cammack but to bring fresh eyes to issues the city has struggled with. The Police and Fire department make up nearly half of the city’s budget and councilors have felt pressure to find efficiencies to avoid further tax increases.
Nealley said he was buoyed by Gastia’s willingness to consider the idea, even if it strayed dangerously close to micromanagement.
Of the other members of the council, only Wheeler attended Monday’s meeting, but he didn’t reveal how he might vote on the issue.