PORTLAND — Taming a growing overtime budget and looking for innovative ways to maintain services in tough economic times will be the top priorities for the city’s next fire chief, says the city manager.

City officials and a select group of community members will have a chance this week to see which of the five finalists for the position they think is up to the task.

The finalists for Portland fire chief are scheduled to visit Thursday and Friday to meet with panels of residents and city officials.

City Manager Mark Rees said he is looking for an innovative leader who understands the complexities of running a “top-notch” department in a city of 66,000, which swells to 150,000 during the day.

The finalists were selected from a pool of 55 applicants. Rees declined to identify them, saying only that all five are men, and one is from Maine.

The city is spending about $13,300 for Massachusetts-based MMA Consulting Group to run an assessment center Friday to test the finalists’ response to certain scenarios, said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

Another $7,200 is being spent to bring the finalists to Portland, Clegg said.

Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne retired in April after serving the city for 27 years, including 10 years as chief. Since then, Deputy Fire Chief Steven Smith has been the acting chief.

According to a posted job description, the priorities for the job are:

n Working to increase the diversity of the work force in terms of race and gender, and improve multicultural competence of the work force.

n Identifying and implementing operational efficiencies to reduce costs while maintaining services.

n Working with other municipal and social service agencies to address the needs of the homeless.

n Enhancing the department’s image and engagement with the community.

Public relations will be a challenge, said Lt. John Brooks, president of Portland Firefighters Union Local 740, which represents about 250 firefighters, EMS and communications workers.

“Public relations, I think, is a huge thing,” said Brooks, who serves on an interview panel. “(The new chief) can’t be camera-shy.”

The department took hits with two high-profile accidents involving the city’s $3.2 million fireboat.

Last year, the boat hit an underwater object near Fort Gorges, sustaining $38,000 worth of damage. Twelve civilians were aboard at the time. In 2009, the boat hit a ledge in Whitehead Passage, the channel between Peaks and Cushing islands, sustaining $90,000 worth of damage.

Dealing with a tight budget, including reining in overtime costs, will be an important part of the new chief’s work, Rees said.

The department has a $15.25 million annual operating budget, which earmarks $99,770 for the chief and $385,000 for five deputy chiefs.

Starting July 1, the department’s budget will increase to $16 million. The incoming chief’s salary has not been negotiated.

From 2009 to 2011, the department budgeted $1.02 million a year for overtime for all employees. In each year, the department exceeded its budget, spending $1.2 million in 2009, $1.49 million in 2010 and $1.58 million in 2011.

For fiscal 2012, which ends Saturday, the department budgeted $1.17 million for overtime. It is projected to exceed that by $400,000.

The budget taking effect Sunday aims to cut overtime to $1.09 million.

Rees said he hopes to review the reports from the interview panels and the assessment center by the end of next week. He will narrow his search to two or three candidates for one-on-one interviews, and hopes to have new chief within a month.

 

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: @randybillings