Alexandria City Manager Vola Lawson last night dismantled the city's troubled Public Safety Department, which had united police, firefighting and code enforcement functions under one agency for the last 27 months.
Making an unscheduled announcement during a City Council meeting, Lawson severed the police from the fire and code enforcement divisions, effective today. Charles T. Strobel, who headed all three divisions with the title of public safety director, will remain chief of police without loss of pay. And former deputy public safety director James E. Hicks was named the new fire chief.
The 1983 public safety merger was intended to save a million dollars and provide more efficient service. But morale and other problems plagued the department from its inception.
Hicks said last night "there has been a real identity problem" for the 97 firefighters who felt they were not being treated as equals to the city's 217 police officers. He said the new organizational plan "will certainly improve morale."
Strobel, who began city service as a rookie police officer 26 years ago, was the center of much recent controversy that some officials said privately contributed to the reorganization. Former city manager Wayne Anderson, who was hired as a consultant to assess the combined departments, said in a report released last night: "Twenty-seven months is not very long but, more to the point, these have been turbulent times, especially for Director Strobel . . . . "
Allegations that Strobel mishandled a 1984 cocaine investigation were investigated last year, and although he was cleared of any wrongdoing, the public scrutiny made some police officers bitter and others leap at the chance to attack him.
Two police officers successfully sued Strobel for violating their constitutional rights by transferring them from detective duties to foot patrol, and a federal judge ordered the pubic safety director to reinstate the officers and pay them $15,000 in punitive damages. The city's insurance paid the judgment.
Strobel, 48, who will retain his $72,000 annual salary as police chief, said he supports the dismantling of the public safety department. "I think we have accomplished some of our objectives and there is no need to continue."
The 1983 merger eliminated 13 management positions, saving the city $786,121 in salaries. None of those positions will be recreated despite complaints from some police officers and firefighters that their loss has stifled promotions and increased tension.
City Council member Carlyle C. Ring (R) said it was with the "unanimous consent" of the council that Lawson dismantled the city's largest department. While saying he believed much had been gained by the merger, Ring added, "I'm sorry because the controversy over the last two years sabotaged the chance for a real test."
Within 45 days, Lawson said the new fire department, which is currently operating out of the public safety headquarters at 400 N. Pitt St. will move to 900 2nd St. As fire chief, Hicks will be paid $57,000 a year.
By December, the police and sheriff's departments will be moved to a new office and jail complex near the Eishenhower Avenue Metro station.
Lawson said the cost of the changeover with be minor, limited to telephone and building modifications.
She added that residents will not be affected by the breakup of the department, which had a staff of 536 and an annual budget of $33.6 million. In emergencies, she said, they should continue to dial 911.
In other business, the council unanimously approved allocation of $133,016 to operate six pilot programs aimed at improving the achievement scores of minority students in the public schools.