BANGOR, Maine — The City Council voted Monday to request proposals from outside consultants to look critically at Police and Fire department operations, but not before councilors heard a terse message from the two department heads: Bring it on.
Police Chief Ron Gastia and Fire Chief Jeff Cammack both cautioned councilors to be careful what they wish for when they start looking closely at their agencies.
“I welcome it, but the council needs to take the good, the bad and the ugly,” said Cammack. “If it turns out [a consultant] says we need more people, you’re going to need to hire them.”
Gastia agreed with Cammack that the possibility exists that a consultant might determine that their departments are doing more than they should with the resources they have. Both chiefs also strongly urged the council that if it was going down that road to find the most qualified consultant possible given the unique nature of public safety.
The idea to consider hiring an outside consultant was brought up at the request of Council Chairman Richard Stone and was born out of recent budget discussions that wrapped up last month. Stone and others questioned the high dollar amount of overtime in the police budget —$800,000 in 2009 alone — and thought that might pave the way for a telescopic look.
Earlier this month, the council’s finance committee voted to send the matter to the council. Gastia, who said at the initial meeting that he would keep an open mind, reiterated that point on Monday.
“I believe we run a very efficient department,” he said.
Five councilors supported seeking requests for consultant services. Gerry Palmer and Pat Blanchette voted against the measure. Geoff Gratwick and Susan Hawes were absent.
Councilor David Nealley said businesses and departments that are a lot more complex than Bangor’s Police and Fire departments have sought consultant services. He pointed out that Bangor International Airport regularly consults with an industry expert.
Blanchette, however, said the council had its chance during the budget process to question its departments. She worried about the message it sent to the chiefs to let someone else come in.
Cammack wondered how his department got dragged into the discussion at all since Stone’s initial request was to look at the Police Department.
“I’m a little disappointed in your willingness to do this study, which could cost up to $80,000, when you couldn’t afford nonunion wage increases for employees,” the fire chief said.
The Police and Fire departments make up nearly half of the city’s budget and councilors have felt pressure to find efficiencies to avoid further tax increases, especially as the 2011 budget season draws closer.
On overtime, 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.
With Monday’s vote, the city will request proposals from consultants and then decide whether to move forward and appropriate money. Councilor Hal Wheeler, who voted for the measure, said it’s important to note that Monday’s decision does not commit the city to hiring a consultant.
“It’s only a first step and it may be the only step,” he said. “I don’t think anyone in public safety should have anything to fear; the results could be to your liking.”