AUBURN — Nobody in Auburn Hall seemed excited about plans to combine police and fire services into a single department, but city councilors will continue to investigate the idea as they work on their fiscal year 2016-17 budget.

Councilors heard a report from Police Chief Phil Crowell about how a new Public Safety Department would work. Crowell’s report was a simple list of pros and cons, as well as other points for councilors to consider. But it was not an endorsement of the idea.

“I think it’s important to note that the departments — the police and fire departments — are not rushing to consolidate,” Crowell said. “It’s not something that we hope for in the outcome of this budget process. But it is a task we have been given as a result of the challenges the city manager had putting together the budget.”

For Crowell, one of the biggest hurdles will be where to put the combined department. The Auburn Police Department operates out of Auburn Hall and the Fire Department administration works out of the Central Station on Minot Avenue.

He noted that the city tried to combine the two departments in 2011, but it didn’t work.

“The largest roadblock was really the facility,” he said. “Right out of the gate, we moved the management out of Minot Avenue and into (Auburn Hall). But over time, after a few months, they ended up moving back over to the fire station.”

Councilors were split on the matter, with Ward 5’s Leroy Walker saying the idea needs a lot more work before he’d be convinced.

“First of all, I want to hear from all the people who hear from us,” Walker said. “Then, I want to think about it for a little while. I just think this is a big one. I’d like to move forward, but I can’t say we should until I know this is 100 percent the right move for the city.”

That drew criticism from Ward 1’s Jim Pross, who said Walker knew what was going to happen when he joined a majority of other councilors in calling for spending cuts.

“Now that the city manager has done the hard work — adhering to the advice of a majority of the council — and has sharpened his pencil and come up with a plan for a cost savings, I struggle with hearing questioning of the potential of consolidating these two agencies,” Pross said. “You stood so firmly before. If we are not going to stand with our manager here on this issue, where will we find that money?”

The reorganization is among a slate of budgetary changes City Manager Howard Kroll presented last week that does away with eight positions — five staffed positions that he cut in on April 15 plus three vacant positions.

It would rewrite cooperative services with Lewiston. Kroll’s budget eliminates Auburn’s payments to the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council and the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and cuts $213,000 from the Lewiston-Auburn 911 system and $27,000 from the Lewiston-Auburn Transit Committee, operators of the Citylink bus system.

It also reorganizes staff, combining five departments into two. Police and fire departments would become the Public Safety Department, while the Community Development, Planning and Economic Development departments would become one department.

Kroll’s cuts were designed to meet two goals set by city councilors:

• A proposed tax increase below 0.7 percent, per city policy; and

• Taking $825,000 out of the city’s General Fund to rebuild the city’s fund balances.

Crowell would act as chief of Public Safety under the new plan. The top police officer and firefighter would each get new titles. Deputy Fire Chief Geoff Low would become assistant fire chief and Deputy Police Chief Jason Moen would become assistant police chief.

That would be the extent of the changes, Crowell said. Both operations would continue as they are now, without further cuts.

Crowell said the new department would gain better communication between two departments that work closely together. They could lose some administrative flexibility, and Crowell warned of potentials for rivalry. Firefighters could object to having a police chief act as their department head.

“Another weakness is, will there be unrealistic expectations out there?” Crowell said. “One could be that this is a first step toward cross-training of all first-line staff and job tasks.”

Councilor Grady Burns objected to using the budget to make efficiency changes.

“We did not get the manager and ask him to build us a consolidated department that increases efficiency and communication,” Burns said. “We want a budget that comes in at 0.7. That’s exactly what he did.”

Councilor Ernestine Gilbert went the other way, bluntly telling the council it was time to trust staff and make a decision.

“I trust the judgment of our people who work in the field,” Gilbert said. “We didn’t expect to see these changes and that the big picture would mean layoffs, but I really respect what our staff has done. I’d like to have a nice way to say this, but I think I’ll have to say it in a not very nice way: I think it’s time to s*** or get off the pot.”

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