Looming pension reform blamed for fire & police exodus - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Looming pension reform blamed for fire & police exodus

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CHATTANOOGA, TN (WRCB) -

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd announced his retirement Monday. He's the latest in a long string of recent retirements among the city's police force and fire department.

The Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board says the number of retirements this year has doubled from a typical year and don't think it's coincidence. They say fear of Mayor Berke's pension reform may be to blame.  

Police Chief Bobby Dodd is leaving at the end of the month with 25 years of service to the city under his belt. Many are questioning why he and more than a dozen other senior officers and firefighters are leaving at the same time and what it means for the public.

"Stepping down at one time is going to be drastic for this city. I don't think citizens even realize how drastic that's going to be," former Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper said.

Former Chattanooga Police Chief Freeman Cooper says he's not surprised at the influx in retirements from the police and fire departments. He thinks it all comes down to the unknown future of their pensions as Mayor Andy Berke and his pension task force look for a way to save money.

"I do believe that fear is the larger driver behind, the fear of the unknown of what's going to happen to their retirement security," Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board President Chris Willmore said.

But, Mayor Berke says that's not the reason.

"Before I ever appointed a task force on pension, Chief Dodd and I discussed the fact that many people on the command staff were of retirement age," Mayor Berke said.

This year, 41 officers and firefighters announced their retirements, including Police Chief Bobby Dodd. He's one of 16 leaving before their 28th year of service, when their pension deal gets better under the current plan. That's double the average number of retirees in a given year, and those usually have met their 28 years of service. But again, those pension plans are subject to change.

"I mean the city owes this to them. Every body can't get out an do that job. Every body doesn't want to get out and do that job," Cooper said.

But Mayor Berke says pension cannot cost as much in the future, and his task force is working on that.

"The pension is 52% funded. We've got to do something to fix this and I expect over the next few weeks to hear some concrete proposals," Mayor Berke said.

While Mayor Berke says public safety won't suffer, the pension board says citizens should be concerned. They say they don't know how many more will leave.

There are currently 51 fire and police officials eligible to retire with 49 having less than 28 years experience.

"It obviously should concern people because there should be a reason for that, and I think they should want to know what the reason is," Willmore said.

The Chattanooga Fire and Police Pension Board has submitted a proposal to the mayor that they say meets his requirements that include attracting and retaining employees. It costs the city $126 million less than the current plan over the course of 30 years.

Mayor Berke has a deadline of December 31st to decide on how to address the police and fire pension shortfall. Though, that could be extended.

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