Ousted police, fire bosses out in cold in Vicksburg|Most say: ‘I’m too young for retirement’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 30, 2009

Keith Rogers, Mark Ettinger and Rose Shaifer, the chief and deputy chiefs of the Vicksburg Fire Department until July 10, have all done the paperwork and are awaiting retirement benefits.

All three began their careers with the Vicksburg Fire Department, put in at least 25 years and had risen to the top of their ranks before being replaced on 2-1 votes by the mayor and aldermen.

None was offered another job in the department and, due to the restrictions of the state retirement system, it’s not clear if any would be in a financial position to accept a new position even if offered.

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The former firefighters — representing more than 80 years’ experience — feel too young to retire but unsure of their future career options.

“It’s tough being replaced like that,” said Ettinger, who had voluntarily retired in 2006 after 25 years with the department and then returned a year later. “It’s a funny thing — I’ve never been fired in my life, and all of a sudden I’m nearly 50 years old and I’m out of the job I’ve trained my whole life to do.”

Lower ranking police officers and firefighters who are fired or suspended can appeal the decision to the Vicksburg Civil Service Commission, which is charged with ensuring the departments are free from political influence and have qualified personnel.

Top officers, however, are political appointees to fixed terms. They are not allowed to be civil service members and are not afforded any protection against being removed for any reason, said Joe Graham, chairman of the three-member commission in Vicksburg. While some past administrations have chosen to offer demotions to fire and police chiefs whom they wish to replace, it is not required.

Like the others who were not reappointed, Rogers said he is not upset with the mayor or aldermen and understood when he accepted the job he could be replaced at any time.

“I’ve always supported the idea that any executive officer needs to be able to put together a team that is going to work for him or her,” said Rogers, who had been chief since March 2002. “I just wish I would have been considered for part of that team.”

Ettinger, Rogers and Shaifer all said they’d like to return to firefighting, but they’d have to make a serious financial sacrifice to remain on the Vicksburg department.

In Mississippi, the Public Employees Retirement System pays half of a retiree’s monthly salary after 25 years of service. That’s roughly $30,000 a year for the former chief and deputy chiefs. If they took demotions to a lower rank of captain, which pays about $40,000 annually, they’d essentially be coming out of retirement for little more than $10,000 a year.

“You cannot go to another department in the state and start paying into PERS again, either. I can’t even go to the (state fire) academy and teach,” said Rogers. “They kind of lock you out, where you’re forced to go to another state and take a job if you want to remain a firefighter.”

Rogers said he and his wife, who moved to Vicksburg in 1980, feel like natives of the city and do not want to leave. However, in light of his limited options, Rogers said they are mulling their options.

“I’m at an age where I can start a whole new career,” said the 47-year-old.

A Vicksburg native, Ettinger, 49, said he’s likely going to continue working with his brother, Daniel, who operates a remodeling and painting business, as he did when he initially retired three years ago. However, with the housing market in a slump, he’s not sure if it will provide enough additional income for his family.

“I’m looking for another job now. I’m too young to retire — I’ll only be 50 next month — and I have bills to pay and kids starting college like everyone else,” said Ettinger, who was first appointed to deputy chief in 2002.  

Shaifer, also a Vicksburg native, is retiring with just under 30 years and had been deputy chief over EMS operations since 2001. She said she would welcome the opportunity to return to the department in another capacity.

“I would love to continue to do the job because I care a great deal about the fire department,” she said. “The city has said it’s a possibility, but that’s all I know.”

Mayor Paul Winfield said he and the aldermen have discussed the possibility of bringing back some of the former chiefs in other roles, but added it has not received serious attention in light of the ongoing budget process.

“I’m open to discussing that option, but right now I think the first priority is to get a deputy chief in place in the police department,” the mayor said.

Former Police Chief Tommy Moffett, who has been an officer for 36 years and was a chief for 24 of them, is also in the market for a job.

South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman, who opposed changes in the fire department, also twice nominated Deputy Police Chief Richard O’Bannon for reappointment but failed to get a second. The position remains filled by O’Bannon — who, like Moffett, came to Vicksburg from Biloxi in 2001. Winfield said he would like Police Chief Walter Armstrong to come back to the board with recommendations for the appointment, and added he expects a short list of names by early next week.

Winfield had nominated all of the new appointees, while Beauman had unsuccessfully nominated all of their predecessors at the new board’s first meeting July 7. North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield eventually sided with the mayor on July 10 after refusing to vote at the first meeting.

“It’s not that any of us have vendettas or any scores to settle with those we did not reappoint, and I would not hesitate for one second to rehire any of those people to work in city government in the future,” said Mayfield. “Those were some of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my 14 years as an elected official. But those decisions have been made; I think we’ve made the right ones and we’re moving forward.”

Meanwhile, after having his position become one of the main points of contention during the mayoral race, Moffett said he knows there is not a place for him on the Vicksburg police force. However, at 59 years old, he also feels too young to retire.

“There are departments that are broken and need fixing, and that’s what I do,” Moffett said. “I’m planning on taking a little bit of time off to collect my thoughts, and we’ll see what happens after that. I don’t know 100 percent what I’ll do, but more than likely I’ll end up working.”

As for being replaced after eight years of service — during which he said the mayor and both aldermen supported the actions he was taking — Moffett said he understands that being replaced is the way the political world works, but admitted that doesn’t take much of the sting away.

“I’ve never been in a position where I had to start over until now,” he said. “It’s a horrible feeling, and here’s what’s horrible: You enjoy working for a city and you know you’re doing a good job, and the department you’re running is moving forward and the citizens are getting what they’re paying for — it’s horrible to have that taken away from you for no other reason than someone wanting to put someone else in your position.”


Contact Steve Sanoski at ssanoski@vicksburgpost.com