Planned police funding irks some firefighters

Published 12:00 am Friday, September 7, 2001

Vicksburg firefighters Leeroy Anderson, front, and Chris Counts clean an ambulance outside Central Fire Station Thursday afternoon.(The Vicksburg Post/MARK J. ARMSTRONG)

[9/07/2001]Some Vicksburg firefighters on duty Thursday said an $8,000 boost in starting pay budgeted for police officers should be given to fire personnel, too.

“There are a lot of guys who work here who would like to get that kind of raise,” said firefighter Chris Counts.

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In the $29.4 million budget approved Tuesday by the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Alderman, pay for first-year police officers is budgeted to go from $24,581 to $32,422 at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. That will make new hires the highest paid in the state. According to a survey by the Mississippi Municipal League, rookie pay here will be $10,000 more per year than in Jackson and $4,000 more than today’s highest-paying department in Starkville.

The raises, however, are not tiered up through the police ranks yet, something Mayor Laurence Leyens said is part of his plan to make the department more competitive and accountable.

City officials said they are getting calls from experienced police officers who say it will not be fair to start rookies at more money than people who have been on the job for years, but Chief Mitchell Dent said the idea is to get more and better applicants and be more selective in hiring.

The city’s plan shows starting pay for firefighters remaining about where it has been, equal to starting pay for police officers. Thursday, Counts and others among the 111 firefighters and EMS personnel who work for the city said the job they do is as important as police and compensation should remain similar.

Charles Harris, an 11-year veteran of the fire department, said this is the first time he can remember that the police got pay hikes and firefighters did not.

“We should be getting raises just like they are,” Harris said. “We’re up all times of the night just like they are.”

Leyens said he sees the two departments as being completely different. “One is not comparable to the other,” he said.

Fire department rookie Leeroy Anderson said police officers deserve raises because of the risks involved in their jobs, but so do firefighters.

“They could go on a call and get shot,” Anderson said. “But we have to go into burning houses and that’s dangerous, too.”

Leyens said there is money budgeted to give raises to some firefighters but not as much as for the police department. He also said that City Hall has gotten calls from other employees among the 300 or so employed by the city in departments other than fire and police.

Leyens said the plan is still unfolding. He said that since the exact pay scale for the police department has not been finished, new officers may not start at the $32,422 budgeted. He also said that an evaluation system will be put in place by Oct. 1 to give those new officers raises based on performance.

“If someone has earned the pay raise they’re going to get it,” Leyens said. But, “there is never going to be across-the-board pay raises in my administration.”

Other cities do have different rates for fire and police personnel. In Starkville, for example, police start at $5,261 more than firefighters.

But in Pontotoc, where firefighters are the highest paid in Mississippi, police and firefighters both start at $26,769.

In the new budget, the fire department will operate on $4.8 million, about $200,000 less than this year. The budget for the police department was cut from $7.1 million to $5.5 million with the majority of that coming from reductions in the number of officers.

The police department will be cut from about 100 officers today to 74. There are no planned cuts in personnel for the fire department, Leyens said.