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Police raises send wrong message, firefighters tell city

Off-duty firefighters from the Vicksburg Fire Department enter City Hall Annex Monday for a meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[9/11/01]Vicksburg firefighters told City Hall Monday that raises budgeted for police and not the fire department send the message that police officers’ lives are valued more than their own.

About 45 firefighters were on hand at the meeting of the Mayor and Aldermen in the wake of $8,000 per year increases for starting police officers announced last week. Mayor Laurence Leyens assured the group they had not been overlooked, but said problems at the police department made them first in line.

“The fire department is here because they thought they had to address their quality of life,” said Capt. Darrell Williamson, identifying himself as spokesman. “We wonder if the board means to say that a firefighter’s life is not comparable in value to the life of a police officer.”

Leyens responded, saying that police and fire jobs are not comparable and that he will “never” OK any across-the-board pay unless tied to a cost-of-living index.

Pay for first-year Vicksburg police officers is budgeted to go from $24,581 to $32,422 at the start of the fiscal year on Oct. 1, making new hires the highest paid in the state. Pay for starting firefighters will remain unchanged near the $24,000 figure.

“Don’t make us seem like we’re less worthy and that’s what you’re doing,” Williamson said.

Leyens said he did not see a difference in how the city values the life of police officers and firefighters, but that there is a difference in the job descriptions and how they should be compensated.

“I don’t believe there is any rational basis to compare one with the other,” Leyens said.

Leyens said there is money budgeted to give raises to some firefighters, but not as much as for the police department. He said the plan is still being developed to give firefighters raises based on job performance.

Leyens also said that although those actions to adjust the pay scale has not been taken yet, the fire department is also not being asked to cut personnel like the police department.

The police department will be cut from about 100 officers today to 74 in the city’s new budget which goes into effect Oct. 1.

“The bottom line is it has never been fair in the way we do those raises,” Young said. “It’s not fair when you do across-the-board raises when you know one person is working harder than another.”

Young said that employees should be given raises on the basis of performance evaluations, but that no method of evaluating employees is in place now.

In a meeting at Central Fire Station Friday, after reports surfaced that a number of firefighters planned to attend the meeting in protest of being left out of the pay increase, Chief Kevin Westbrook told firefighters they would not be allowed to attend while on the time clock or in uniform. Westbrook said firefighters could face unspecified consequences if they appeared at the board meeting in uniform.

None of the firefighters who appeared before the board Monday were on duty or in uniform, but firefighter Darrell Flaggs said many were afraid to come to the meeting because they feared they could lose their jobs.

Leyens, who met with Westbrook, both aldermen, the city attorney and Police Chief Mitchell Dent for 20 minutes before the public meeting, said that’s not the message City Hall was sent.

“It was so misinterpreted that several of us felt that our careers would be in jeopardy,” Flaggs said.

Leyens said that he told Westbrook that firefighters are welcome to come to the board to discuss the fire department as city taxpayers, but that he did not want on-duty firefighters at City Hall because it would jeopardize public safety.

South Ward Aldermen Sid Beauman added that city employees should be following their chain-of-command to communicate with the board. One example he gave was a number of suggestions about the fire department that have been shoved under his office door at City Hall.

“We’re open to ideas, but do it the right way,” Beauman said.

Capt. Bendel White with the fire department told board members that a lack of information and rumors were a big problem for the firefighters.

“We were told that the new fire truck we are getting was our raises,” White said.

Leyens said that the $650,000 truck budgeted for the department was required to maintain the city’s fire ratings used to set insurance rates for homeowners.

“If we do not have to replace the truck for two years we will not replace the truck,” Leyens said.

Westbrook said that the department’s snorkel truck has to be replaced in two years to maintain the fire ratings, but that it takes about 250 days to construct the truck after it is ordered.

“If we wait for next October, with the bid process and construction we will be over the two years,” Westbrook said.

Leyens 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.

“We just can’t do it all today and we chose to deal with what we think is the highest priority for the City of Vicksburg and that’s our police department,” Leyens said.

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.