Worcester councilor wants merger of police, fire under public safety explored

WORCESTER – With the city expected to have even more limited financial resources in the coming years, a city councilor wants the city administration to explore the feasibility of consolidating the Police and Fire departments into a single department of public safety, headed by a public safety commissioner.At the request of Councilor-at-Large Konstantina B. Lukes, the City Council Tuesday night asked City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. to provide a report on whether such a merger can be done legally.

If so, the council also asked the manager to detail the advantages and disadvantages.
Mrs. Lukes, who has raised the consolidation issue on previous occasions, said the intent of her order is not to save money, but rather to maximize the city’s available resources by cross-training police and fire personnel. Under her plan, some administrative processes of the departments would be combined, but not the physical plants.
She said the idea of merging public safety functions is one that is catching on nationwide, though it has received pushback from police and firefighter unions.
The councilor pointed out that Sunnyvale, California, a city of about 140,000 people, has had combined police and fire departments since 1950, while Kalamazoo, Michicgan, a city of about 76,000, has had combined public safety functions since the 1980s.
“This is not meant to save money; it’s not going to save money,” she said. “Hopefully, though, this can make those services more efficient and expand what resources we have.
“Given the financial situation that is going on in the world and is hitting this country more and more, money is going to be tight,” she said. “We have to look at some new ways of doing things. If we’re going to demand innovation and high tech results from our own departments, we should lead the way.”
The fact that the City Council approved Mrs. Lukes’ order was not an endorsement of her idea. Instead, the council was simply seeking information from the city manager.
Mayor Joseph M. Petty pointed out that the council has made similar requests for information about public safety consolidation.
He said while combined public safety functions may exist in other parts of the country, the council has been told before that such a merger is difficult, if not impossible, in this state because of the laws that established municipal police and fire departments.
Neverthless, Mrs. Lukes said it is an idea worth talking about.
“Do I expect this to happen in the near future?” she asked. “I’d be more shocked than anybody here. But I’ve been here long enough to know we don’t take action unless we have a crisis. I think we have to do something with our public safety entities.
“They’re under more and more scrutiny, and under more and more pressure,” she added.
“We have to start dealing with this in a very aggressive, pro-active way.”
Contact Nick Kotsopoulos at nicholas.kotsopoulos@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @NCKotsopoulos