Alexandria officials said yesterday that City Manager Vola T. Lawson will recommend that the city dismantle its Public Safety Department, which along with its director, Charles T. Strobel, has been enmeshed in controversy since it was created 20 months ago.
City officials had said that the consolidation of the police, fire and code enforcement departments would save thousands of dollars and provide more efficient service for Alexandria's 107,000 residents, but the department's objectives were sidetracked when Strobel came under investigation for his handling of a drug investigation.
A special grand jury cleared him of the allegations, but the highly public affair left many members of the city's police department bitter. Officers also have complained that by reducing the number of management jobs, the consolidation hurt their chances for promotion.
Lawson said yesterday that the future of the Public Safety Department is still under review and would say only that her recommendation will go to the council within a month. However, top public safety officials met yesterday morning to discuss possible ways to separate the three branches of the department.
"Yes, I have had discussions, but I cannot go into detail," Strobel said yesterday. "But, no, I'm not surprised at what is happening."
The consolidation caused resistance, particularly from the Fire Department, as soon as it was announced. The city's popular fire chief, Charles Rule, left after Strobel, who was the city police chief, was named to head the department.
The merger, similiar to those in many other cities, was supported by then-city manager Douglas Harman, who said repeatedly that in the long run a merger would save the city money and deliver services more efficiently. The city manager's office estimates that the consolidation has saved the city more than $1 million this year, and that it also had eliminated 25 city jobs.
But when Harman resigned, shortly after the Strobel investigation ended, the future of the Public Safety Department and Strobel were cast in doubt.
"This has not worked in most places where it has been tried," Mayor James P. Moran Jr. said yesterday.
Moran said the public safety department in Durham, N.C., on which Alexandria in part modeled its consolidation, recently was dismantled.
Moran, who took office July 1, said that no final decision has been made about the department, and that one will not be reached before a report by Wayne Anderson, a former Alexandria city manager, is released this month.
Other city officials, who asked that their names not be used, said that leaders of the Public Safety Department already have been asked for suggestions as to how and when the split can be made.
Council member Patricia S. Ticer said morale and communication dispatch problems, in addition to the publicity surrounding last year's investigation, have had a "snowball effect, a general deterioration."
"I have a gut feeling that it a breakup will be recommended," Ticer said.
Other city officials said it is unfair to expect the consolidation to show clear benefits in so brief a trial period. They said ending the project before giving it a few more years would waste more energy and money than it would save.
"The ultimate goal here would have been to develop a versatile public safety officer," said one senior law enforcement official. "But that would take 10 to 15 years and nobody in this town was willing to wait that long."
The Public Safety Department, with an annual budget of $33.6 million, is the city's largest agency. It includes 217 police officers, 88 firefighters and 42 members of the code enforcement branch, most of whom inspect housing units. With support and clerical staff, the department has a total of 535 full-time and 26 part-time employes.
Rivalries between fire and police departments are not unusual. But since Strobel, who has spent 27 years on the city police force, became director of the department, sharper divisions between the branches have arisen.
Moran has said that many firefighters resent the strong management presence of the police in the department and feel their chances of advancement are limited.
Strobel has said his department, which is budgeted for almost 10 percent more employes than its current number, has been fighting attrition. Many younger officers have looked on Alexandria as good place to spend five years learning their trade before moving on to more lucrative jobs elsewhere.