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North Adams Panel Reviewing Commissioner Post
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
11:27PM / Wednesday, November 16, 2011
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The Public Safety Committee is determining whether to continue with the public safety commissioner post.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Public Safety Committee heard the mayor's recommendation to keep the current public safety commissioner post but did not commit to anything yet.

"One, we should not rush into this, we don't have to," said committee Chairman Alan Marden. "Two, there is no reason to rush into this ...  What are we missing?"

The committee was charged last January with reviewing the Public Safety Department structure and determining if the city should continue with the current public safety commissioner or eliminate that post and return to a fire chief and police chief.

The current organization was introduced in 1981 after the passage of Proposition 2 1/2 as a cost savings. Thirty years later, the committee is trying to determine if that is still the case. While there is no reason to rush, the committee is facing a deadline: the final exit of Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco.

Morocco, who "retired" last June, is doing part-time duty until the end of the year; Mayor Richard Alcombright said Morocco has agreed to stay on in his reduced capacity until the end of the fiscal year.

The city can afford to keep him by not filling the vacant position of administrative officer. Alcombright said he was working on a new model for fiscal oversight that he wanted to try for at least the next year. But there is a "very tight time line" in getting a new commissioner — or a new chief structure — in place by May 15.

Figures provided to the committee by Alcombright and Morocco indicated that it would cost less to hire a new commissioner than to reorganize each public safety division.

"They're off the cuff but fairly in the ballpark," said the mayor. It would also continue a "cohesive and tight structure" in public safety, which includes oversight of the inspectors of building, health, weights and measures and wire. Alcombright said he would also add the traffic, or parking, department to the commissioner's responsibilities.

Alcombright and Morocco estimated that promoting a fire chief and police chief and their respective deputies, and adding another base employee in each division, would cost an estimated $135,000; hiring new chiefs would cost $173,000.

More Information
• The typical police heirarchy dates to  the 1860s
• Departments in the west and parts of the south began moving toward commissioners in the 1970s
• In some departments, there is no distinction between police & fire
• Only a few towns in the state have public safety departments, the most recent being Haverhill, population 61,000
Source: Commissioner Morocco

Those figures were based on the salaries of comparable positions in the surrounding area, ranging from a low of $59,000 for the fire chief in Lenox (with its volunteer fire department) to a high of $125,000 for the Pittsfield police chief.

A new commissioner was tagged at about $88,000.

Also to be taken into account in a reorganization would be whether to abide by civil service or to ask for an exemption through a home-rule petition. Morocco said police chiefs in surrounding communities were mostly contract, not civil service.

Reverting back to chiefs would also require the new ordinances, something that should not be weighed in the decision-making process, said Alcombright.

Councilor Lisa Blackmer and Councilor-elect Jennifer Breen Kirsch questioned the number of patrolmen and firefighters and how they would fit into a reorganization.

"The whole structure from a cost point of view, of how many patrolmen we have, of how many supervisors we have and at what levels is a whole cost structure that's part of the decision-making process, and that at some point be addressed," said Blackmer.

Marden said he did not believe that was in the purview of the committee and Alcombright, while agreeing with Blackmer and Breen Kirsch, thought it should be addressed once a management structure had been decided.

Committee members Michael Boland and Marie Harpin thought it made sense to continue the current structure and hire a new commissioner. Breen Kirsch, however, questioned the figures presented, saying there could be others ways to look at them, such as how they fit into those department's budgets.

"It does beg the question ... every surrounding community has a police chief," she said. "There has to be a reason and I think it would be important to look at the numbers and efficiencies."

Blackmer said the numbers may be right but she thought the committee should look at more information.

The committee set another meeting for Dec. 6 at 5 p.m.; Alcombright asked that the members recommend retaining Morocco until May to the City Council.
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