A look at police, fire costs wise

Posted July 23, 2010, at 9:38 p.m.

About an hour after we brought our 2-day-old son home from the hospital, we were on the phone with 911 and an ambulance from the Bangor Fire Department was on the way to our house.

After having fed the baby I had placed him on his side in his bassinet (as was the recommendation at the time) with a small blanket rolled up behind him to prevent him from rolling onto his back.

Within about 75 seconds he had done just that and vomited and choked.

I was glad the Bangor Fire Department was able to get to our house as quickly as it did. The ambulance workers suctioned out his nose, mouth and throat with that familiar blue bulbous syringe, got him breathing well again and ushered him and me to the ambulance so that he could get checked out at the hospital.

I vowed never to live anywhere without a full-time fire department as long as we had children in our home.

The next day, like so many grateful families before us and since, we arrived at the fire station with pans of brownies and cakes. We gushed and I cried, sure that they would never truly know the extent of my gratitude.

It’s the same with law enforcement officers, whether they’re taking command of a crime scene, intervening in a possibly deadly robbery or assault or providing comfort and first aid at an accident scene.

When you are in crisis and you call, they come and they come fast.

It has been 14 years since I made that 911 call to the Bangor Fire Department. I’ve never had to make another (there was the time when I had a galvanized nail stuck about an inch into the bottom of my foot that wouldn’t come out — but that was not a 911 emergency — just a call to ask, “How hard should I pull?”)

(The answer was, “Don’t pull at all,” by the way.)

My gratitude has not waned and I still remain committed to living in a community with full-time, always available police and fire departments.

That being said, there is no reason to vilify the Bangor city councilors who recently suggested that the city might benefit from an outside independent audit of the overtime structure of the Police and Fire departments.

It does not necessarily mean that those particular councilors feel that the departments are being managed badly.

The truth is that police and fire costs account for nearly half of the city’s budget. Times are tight, and it is not only prudent but also obligatory that the municipal leaders of any community look at ways to trim and cut back.

Of course, the overtime costs of police and fire departments are largely unpredictable because of the nature of the work. But are there some areas such as sick time, court time, vacation time and training that could be better configured?

Take court time, for example.

When an officer makes an arrest or writes a ticket and the defendant needs to go to court, the officer, along with any other officers who may have witnessed the event, most likely will be needed to testify at the trial.

Day after day and week after week, off-duty police officers arrive at courthouses throughout the state — as ordered by the county district attorney’s office — prepared to testify at a defendant’s trial.

Like most court proceedings this process requires a great deal of waiting around in the hallways of the courthouse until the case in question is called.

Officers sitting there and waiting are most often on the clock at time and a half.

If the case is set to go to trial and the officer does not show up, then chances are pretty good that the case is going to be dismissed and the defendant will get off.

When police officers don’t show up, prosecutors get testy.

So they dutifully show up, often on their days off. Cops who arrest people at night generally work the night shift. There is no court at night, so they must appear in court during their time off — which would be overtime.

They wait and rack up some decent overtime and then — perhaps not all the time, but certainly a majority of the time — the defendant, the defendant’s lawyer and the prosecutor will decide after some last-minute finagling to settle the case with a plea bargain.

The officer may be thanked for showing up but will be told his or her services will not be needed.

Is there a better way? If there is, how much overtime could be saved with just that one change?

If the real desire of City Councilors Richard Stone, David Nealley, Richard Bronson and Cary Weston were to reduce the Fire and Police departments’ ability to do their jobs properly, I would be the first to object.

It’s not a service I’m willing to risk.

But the utmost importance of both departments and the absolute necessity that they remain strong and viable during this continuing economic struggle is good reason to a take close — and yes, perhaps, independent — look at some of the areas of operations.

It’s not about questioning anyone’s integrity. It’s about responsible governance.

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