Friends – this wasn’t originally my idea, but I think it’s worth considering. We may determine in the end that it’s unworkable, but considering it can’t hurt. I welcome your input.
Chelmsford selectman sees potential savings with public-safety director
By Rita Savard, firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: 05/06/2010 06:35:53 AM EDT
CHELMSFORD — In the mid-’90s, it was a concept that divided the town — hiring a public-safety director to replace the police and fire chiefs.
Now the idea of appointing an administrator to oversee the town’s emergency services has been put back on the table as the recession, and the departure of the town’s longtime fire chief, Jack Parow, presents an opportunity for Chelmsford to streamline resources, said Selectman Eric Dahlberg.
Dahlberg, who is also a Republican contender for the Third Middlesex District senate seat, asked fellow selectmen this week to revisit the idea.
“What I’d like to see happen is that this be an option we at least consider,” Dahlberg said. “The voters consistently direct us to think outside the box. This to me is something we should consider along the lines of possibly saving the town some money.”
A public-safety director or commissioner would serve as the administrative head of both the police and fire departments, possibly eliminating the need for two chiefs. Instead, there are typically two deputy chiefs appointed to run the day-to-day operations in each department.
“Ultimately the whole goal is to save taxpayers’ dollars while continuing to deliver services as efficiently and effectively as possible,” Dahlberg said..
But a former selectman, who led the charge to strike down the measure 16 years ago, said bringing a public-safety director on board would be a waste of taxpayers’ money by duplicating services that already exist.
“In effect, (Town Manager) Paul Cohen is in charge of both departments. He is the public-safety director that both chiefs have to report to,” said Bill Dalton, a Town Meeting representative who served on the Board of Selectmen for 15 years.
“So if we already have a town manager who does the hiring and firing for those departments, and you’d still need two people who oversee those departments, hiring an additional administrator seems like adding just another person to the town’s payroll. That isn’t going to save money.”
Dalton spearheaded an effort in 1994 to reverse action taken by former Chelmsford Town Manager Bernie Lynch, who is now Lowell’s city manager.
At that time, Chelmsford had undergone a mass exodus of department heads due to retirements, including the police and fire chiefs and other top-ranking employees that served in each department.
Lynch said he looked at other municipalities that had success using a public-safety director model and felt, by putting all managerial responsibilities of the police and fire departments under one person, that Chelmsford could save money by consolidating training and administrative resources in two areas.
“You have a defense department in the United States that all the branches of the military fall under to coordinate resources,” Lynch said. “On a local level, a public-safety director is along the same idea.”
By operating public safety with fewer managers earning six figure salaries, Lynch said, theoretically, the town might have been able to put more police patrols on the street.
Lynch said his measure was approved by the Board of Selectmen at the time, and funding for the position was approved by Town Meeting. A public-safety director was even hired.
John Fasana, a California resident who had served as a police officer in Los Angeles, a fire chief in San Francisco and had also been the head of Boston’s EMS, was tapped for the position. But Lynch faced strong opposition from the Chelmsford Professional Fire Fighters union, which Dalton was president of.
Feeling that Fasana’s position was a waste of taxpayer’s money, Dalton collected 2,500 signatures against the measure, and said he was encouraged to run for the Board of Selectmen as a result.
Dalton won the election and said his first vote as a selectman was to reject the town manager’s reorganization. Although Lynch could have upheld his actions under the town’s bylaw, his contract was also up that year.
Going against the new board’s wishes would have most likely pushed Lynch out of a job, along with Fasana, he said.
Fasana, who had already resigned from a position in California, was paid $25,000 and let go before he had a chance to start his first day on the job.
Members of the current Board of selectmen said they were open to discussing Dahlberg’s suggestion.
Adding that he’d “look into anything that doesn’t cost the town money,” Selectman Jon Kurland said he didn’t think the model would fit a community of Chelmsford’s size.
“Usually you see those types of positions in smaller, more rural communities that have a volunteer fire department,” Kurland said. “From my perspective, I don’t think it would be something economically beneficial for the town.”
Retired Police Chief Wayne Sampson, who is executive director of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs Association, said the public-safety director model is rare in Massachusetts, with a small number of communities, including Mendon and North Adams, utilizing it.
“They’re very clearly two different functions, except for the common feature of personnel and budget administration,” Sampson said.
State law also prohibits a police officer from performing a firefighter’s duties. Because of that, public-safety director roles can also become the focus of political infighting depending on the background of the director. A director with a background in policing can leave firefighters feeling like they don’t have one of their own at the helm and vice versa.
“I just wanted to put it out there as a possible option,” Dahlberg said. “In this economy we really need to examine any and all options to save money.”
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