published Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Chattanooga: Officials see pros, cons to merged services


by Matt Wilson
Audio clip

Freeman Cooper

Area police and fire officials say they’re open to the idea of consolidating some services, as Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield has suggested.

But union officials said they would fight any plans to cut staff in such consolidations.

“I don’t want to see anybody lose their jobs,” said Capt. Jeff Eldridge, president of the Chattanooga Firefighters Association.

In fact, Capt. Eldridge argued, Mr. Littlefield’s plans to annex out to Chattanooga’s the boundaries in the city’s growth plan should mean more jobs for firefighters.

Sgt. Tom McKinney, acting president of the Chattanooga chapter of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said consolidation is “a very interesting concept.”

“We would have a lot of concern if those cuts included patrol officers and sergeants,” he said.

Sgt. McKinney said the police union would be more accepting if the consolidation meant eliminating duplicated management positions.

Mr. Littlefield said police officers and firefighters shouldn’t be worried about their operations shrinking.

“Those services are going to be in demand,” he said. “And we’re going to have to have more of them.”

What officials must determine is the boundary in which urban services will be provided, Mr. Littlefield said. He used Nashville as an example of a city with a defined service boundary.

Nashville and Davidson County maintain a separate police force and sheriff’s department, but the police force handles all patrol duties while the sheriff’s main duty is maintaining the county jail.

Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper said a combined metro police force like Nashville’s is “something that definitely should be on the table in the future,” but said it may be tough to create an effective one.

“Very few cities have been able to do that and masterfully do it where you really have a reduction in cost,” he said.

Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said it would be worthwhile to look at areas where the city and county could save money by consolidating services, but he said some areas may not be practical.

“I have pros and cons of how I feel about it,” he said.

The sheriff said he needed more input from the County Commission, the City Council and citizens on details of the issue.

Chief Cooper and Sheriff Hammond each pointed out that the Sheriff’s Office and the city police already collaborate often. For instance, they do joint SWAT operations and soon may share a firing range, Sheriff Hammond said.

Chief Cooper said he believed Mr. Littlefield intended in his inauguration speech Monday to encourage an expansion of that partnership.

“Criminals don’t recognize any type of boundaries,” he said.

Acting Chattanooga Fire Chief Randy Parker said his department and other fire departments in the county also already work together.

“If we get dispatched to a call, we go,” he said.

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