City ponders creating public safety director position

Published 9:47 am Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The City of Austin plans to continue its research into the future possibility of creating a public safety director position.

One of the city council’s long-term ideas for consideration to reduce their budget, the new director would replace the fire chief and police chief, who are likely to retire in the next three years.

One proposal would be to replace the fire chief with the police chief as public safety director and expect the assistant fire chief to run day-to-day operations.

Email newsletter signup

When the fire chief retires, a public safety director would manage both departments.

The idea was debated by the council at its work session Monday night. The definition of the position has not been determined. Human Resources Director Trish Wiechmann has researched other cities in Minnesota who have such a position.

“It depends on what you mean when you say ‘public safety director,’ ” said city administrator Jim Hurm.

Some cities have one director and an assistant in both departments; others have a chief in each department in addition to one public safety director.

New Brighton has reported to have much success with their director, while Red Wing eventually dropped the position and reverted back to the traditional staffing. Marshall also has a director, but the position differs from what Austin would consider.

“Red Wing tried it eight years ago for four years — it created more problems for them than solutions,” explained Mayor Tom Stiehm, a retired detective for the Austin Police Department.

“It can be a very sensitive thing if you are a firefighter or police officer if you think your identity is going to be taken away,” Austin Police Chief Paul Philipp said.  “In Red Wing, he said, it created “terrible hard feelings with the firefighters.”

“There have been success stories,” he said. “It’s just a factor you need to be aware of.”

Hurm said it is still an idea worth looking in to.

“You just have to do it really carefully,” Hurm said. “Maybe it will work here. There may be more (cities) who are looking into it as well.”

Council member Brian McAlister, also retired from the APD as a captain, said he is concerned about conflicts between administrators.

“My real concern is some kind of strain between the public safety director and police chief about how they’re going to do things,” he said.

Another consideration in the public safety budget is overnight coverage at the fire department utilizing the proposed two-year fire training program through Riverland Community College.

Trainees could be housed at the station, allowing the department to expand its part-time overnight firefighter program. Full-time firefighters would move to work-day and evening hours, allowing them opportunities to become involved in city functions.

Council member John Martin said the public has already indicated they support 24-7 coverage at the fire station.

“Citizens of Austin have spoken and the citizens of Austin have said they are willing to pay for their fire department and their safety,” said Martin, who represents the Third Ward.

Marian Clennon, also of the Third Ward, said she is concerned about who would be manning the station.

“You can’t have partially trained people,” she said.

“What is the real advantage there in terms of saving dollars?” Hurm said. “It could result in a reduction of full-timers.”

Hurm added the city doesn’t yet know how severe cuts will be in Local Government Aid.

“We understand that 1.2 million could be 2.2 million,” he said.  “If we get hit hard, we need to get creative.”