The Courier-News

Elgin looks at police, fire cost-cutting options

Friday, September 10, 2010

ELGIN -- In the wake of Elgin Fire Chief John Henrici's announcement this week that he plans to retire in November, questions have arisen over what shape that department -- and all of the city's emergency services -- may take.
The future is up for consideration, City Manager Sean Stegall pointed out this week as the city looks into consolidating certain administrative functions of the police and fire departments as part of a newly formed public safety department.

"There's no plan or consideration being given to firefighters carrying guns and police officers putting out fires," he said Tuesday. "So it's mostly when it comes to the support services -- to train, to do some joint-response things, to the logistical support -- where I think there is a lot of initial indications that there's some real opportunities not only for enhanced services but also for savings through that. And obviously having a change in the fire chief position is the ideal time to really address that issue."

Stegall said he plans to form a task force comprised of police officers and firefighters to discuss the concept and get a better sense of its practicality from an operational perspective.

"I think it makes the most sense to let those who do the work guide that decision," he said.

Part of any new structuring would include the existence of a police chief and a fire chief, Stegall said.

In April, city sources told The Courier-News that consideration was being given to eliminating both positions in favor of a public safety director who would oversee both departments, with deputy police chiefs and fire battalion chiefs reporting directly to the director.

"The one thing that I do know is that we would still have a police chief and a fire chief," he said. "Whether it's necessary to have someone over them certainly needs to be determined."

Helping with the task force's mission will be Councilman Rich Dunne, a lieutenant in the fire department, who said consolidation of some functions could save the city money while creating better cohesion between departments.

"I believe that there are areas where consolidation can produce some nice opportunities to be a little more cost-efficient for our citizens," he said.

Similar cost-cutting measures have been considered by an increasing number of municipalities over the last few years as many cities and villages, such as Elgin, have had to address declines in revenue.

Speaking in April, Northern Illinois University public administration professor Gerald Gabris said more cities are looking at establishing what he called "flatter hierarchies," with fewer managers to allow for more emergency personnel on the street.

Currently, reorganization measures involving emergency services are in effect in only a few cities around the country.

But as Elgin Police Chief Jeffrey Swoboda pointed out, consolidation between police and fire departments already exists in certain areas -- most notably, the city's emergency communication system, which dispatches 911 emergency calls for both departments.

"It's all about the budget, and are there ways we can increase our purchasing power if we look at police and fire together," he said. "You'll never see a cop driving an ambulance or a fire fighter driving a police car."