Nearly a week after almost the entire Chattanooga Police Department top command submitted retirement letters, the event remains the hottest topic of whispered water cooler conversations or patrol officers catching a break between calls.
The exodus of Police Chief Bobby Dodd, chief of detectives Kirk Eidson, deputy chief Tommy Kennedy and captain Jeanne Snyder sent shock waves through the department and city hall. The four retired en masse Monday, Dec. 16, during a staff meeting with Mayor Andy Berke.
“Everybody’s freaked out,” said a police source who requested not to be named. “We’ve never seen so many top people leave at once. Everybody’s wondering what we’ll get.”
According to local media reports, Berke appointed a “blue ribbon,” three-person search team to replace Dodd. Deputy chief Stanley Maffett was named interim chief. Berke's public comment about the chief's retirement claimed Dodd left for an “opportunity in the private sector.”
Despite a search committee the police rumor mill is churning. According to one police source, a name bobbing to the top of the pool is that of a veteran police officer head of an urban Minnesota police department. The source who reported the information stressed that the name is just talk at this point.
“But how would (the rumor mill) throw a dart and just hit that person,” the officer said.
The officer also questioned the timing of a change to city employee health insurance coverage to allow them to claim partners on their city-paid health insurance policy. The Minnesota chief recently married her long time partner under Minnesota’s same sex marriage laws, adopted in August.
Efforts to reach the Minnesota police department were unanswered. A web reporter from the area answered an email query, stating she has not heard the chief plans to relocate. The reporter, whose articles suggest a good relationship with the chief, also said she doubted the chief would "be moving to Chattanooga."
Dodd stayed in office after Berke's election in March when one of the then mayor-elect's first moves was to compel all city department heads to reapply for their jobs. At that time, Berke accepted the retirement/resignation of eight of 11 administrators. He said then he was talking with Dodd about his future. High ranking police officers said then they were told to expect "big changes."
Dodd was also one of about 100 employees given a raise beyond the 1.5 percent across-the-board city employee raises in the 2014 budget approved in September.
Dodd and crew are retiring at a time when the city fire and police pension fund is under scrutiny. Berke is focusing on revamping a plan that some say is too rich and too expensive for the city to continue to support especially at a time when the private sector has very little retirement benefits. At least 50 fire and police personnel are eligible to retire this year and more than 35, excluding the chief and his staff, have retired.
Pension board member Sgt. Craig Joel said officers and firefighters are against changes that would increase their contribution, cut their pension pay, cuts of cost-of-living raises and set a minimum age to retire. Their pension is all they have to support themselves, he said.
"Firefighters, police officers and railroad workers do not pay social security taxes, which means we do not receive benefits," Joel said. "We originally were excluded from paying social security because statistically (firefighters and police officers) did not live long enough to receive benefits. So we are completely dependent on our pension for retirement."
The retirement age is an important sticking point for employees, Joel said. At present the retirement is based on number of years. Joel said setting an upper age limit extends the life of an already dangerous, high-stress job.
"The average age of the violent criminal today is between 17 and 19," he said. "When people look at retirement age (for police and firefighters), they equate that to a desk job or a clerical job. What they don't consider is (having) 55- or 60-year-old officers having to chase, fight and apprehend someone that age."
Some years ago, the pension board implemented the DROP (deferred retirement option plan), allowing officers to designate their pension contribution to a 401K type plan when they reached a certain number of years. Employees may participate in the DROP after the 25th year and until the 28th year. If they stay until the 30th year, they lose the DROP, a lump sum that reduces their yearly pension payout. If an officer works 30 years, he or she will receive about 70 percent of their top three years pay but they lose the DROP, the lump sum, if they contributed to that plan.
The DROP has influenced many retirement decisions. Sgt. Tim Chapin was a 27-year-veteran officer when he was shot to death while answering a robbery call. Chapin was working toward his 28th year to earn his DROP when he was killed. Those who knew him said he talked of working to earn the three year lump sum pay out. Under the pension plan, his wife and two children did not receive that lump sum, according to police records.
Dodd and others have not commented on their decisions. Each one has reached or passed the first retirement benchmark, putting in at least 25 years. They will receive slightly more than 68 percent of the average of their last three years' pay.
Dodd’s starting chief pay was around $115,000; it increased to $126,875 in September. Dodd could possibly bring home as much $80,900 a year in retirement.
The other officers are in similar situations. Each will get about 68 percent of an average of the last three years of their pay. According to the 2013-2014 city budget, Kennedy’s salary was $95,919.53, Eidson’s was listed at $81,200 and Snyder was paid $73,080. Both Kennedy and Snyder have served at these pay levels for three years while Eidson was promoted from lieutenant to homicide chief slightly longer than a year ago.