A potential tax increase grabbed the headlines, but another line in Portland’s proposed annual budget also deserves some attention.
Portland City Manager Mark Rees has called for an evaluation of the city’s fire department, the first such study since 1983.
This kind of analysis is important and long overdue. Fire protection and emergency services combine to be one of the biggest ticket items in the city budget every year, but it has proven to be nearly impossible to evaluate if the money is well-spent in the context of emotional arguments during a budget season.
Portland has been in a steady battle for resources since 2008. State and federal aid is shrinking, and there is not enough development to increase the city’s tax base. Every city department and the schools have weathered budget cuts and layoffs, and all have been challenged to look at different ways to get the job done.
In the case of the fire department, the challenge is to compare Portland’s fire and emergency services with others in Maine and elsewhere to see if Portland is spending its money wisely. The issue is not whether Portland has too much protection, but if its current spending choices reflect the city’s real needs.
Portland spends about $16 million a year on the department, which employs 234 people. They responded to 15,000 calls for service last year, about two-thirds of which were emergency medical calls, not fires. It may make sense to restructure the fire department to reflect the kind of mission it has come to deliver over time.
This is an excellent time to consider that kind of reorganization. With the retirement last year of longtime Chief Fred LaMontagne, the department is already going through a transition. The search for a new chief would work well with a comparative study of the department, giving the new chief solid information on which to base future decisions.
The city manager’s budget will undergo a lot of scrutiny in the weeks ahead, and there likely will be pushing and shoving between people who want to see more or less spending. But the well-timed proposal to evaluate the fire department should not stir up any controversy. This study makes sense.