BANGOR, Maine — The debate over whether the city should hire a private consultant to conduct a review of Bangor’s police and fire departments has boiled over this week.
City Councilor Pat Blanchette on Monday accused fellow Councilor David Nealley, who has pushed hard for the independent review, of initiating a witch hunt on the public safety departments.
Specifically, Blanchette took umbrage with a statement Nealley made during a meeting of the council’s finance committee that suggested if the consultant cannot find budget efficiencies, “We didn’t hire the right group.”
Blanchette said Nealley’s comments made it seem as if he were targeting cuts to the police and fire departments, even though other councilors have acknowledged that a review might reveal that public safety deserves more funding.
“I’m hurt and disappointed that you would treat our staff in that demeaning manner,” Blanchette said.
Nealley calmly responded by explaining his position and later said Blanchette overlooked his point.
“It took me back a little,” he said of Blanchette’s comments. “But no one is saying there is gross negligence here. We’re just trying to streamline and create efficiencies.”
Councilors plan to vote at their next regular meeting on Oct. 25 on two council orders that would approve contracts to hire separate firms — Emergency Services Consulting Inc. for fire and McGrath Consulting Group for police — to conduct the departmental reviews.
Councilors also will vote whether to appropriate $71,500 from the city’s undesignated fund balance to pay for those reviews.
Also Monday, the council will vote whether to consolidate Bangor’s police and fire dispatch services with Penobscot County Regional Dispatch.
Discussion of all those items is likely to be animated. The Blanchette-Nealley dustup was not the only point of contention this week.
Councilor Hal Wheeler said he didn’t like the idea of singling out the police and fire departments.
“If we’re going to review two departments, we’ve got to review them all,” he said.
Councilor Susan Hawes objected to the source of the $71,500 needed to pay a consultant. Hawes reminded the council that it discussed the undesignated fund balance at length during the most recent budget process. They determined that the funds, which now total about $8.5 million, are considered emergency.
“I’m not sure this is an emergency,” Hawes said.
Nealley, however, pointed out that if the consultant finds even one-half percent worth of budget efficiencies, it would pay for itself in the first year.
Some councilors also thought it might be a good idea to wait until new City Manager Catherine Conlow is on board before they make a decision. Others felt that since the reviews are likely to take four or five months, waiting is not a good idea.
So far, Police Chief Ron Gastia and Fire Chief Jeff Cammack have been good sports about the possibility of departmental reviews. The idea came out of budget discussions in the spring and summer that revealed large expenditures for overtime, which Nealley called low-hanging fruit.
Council Chairman Richard Stone, however, said the review is not just about overtime.
“Both chiefs are very professional. They will understand that it’s just good policy. These are very specialized fields that take up a big portion of the budget,” he said. “You can’t review yourselves.”
Added Nealley: “I don’t think there is any councilor that is going to cut corners with police and fire.”