Florida Times Union

Fire chief announces he'll retire in 2 years

He's rejoined fund that mandates years he can work before he must leave.

By DANA TREEN , The Times-Union

Jacksonville Fire Chief Rick Barrett has opened the door for city officials to find his replacement, saying he plans to retire in two years.

Barrett, 54, has rejoined a city program that allows employees to contribute to a retirement fund while working. When employees sign up, they can only work a set number of years before they must leave.

The chief's final two-year countdown begins July 2.

"That will put me through the first term of the mayor," said Barrett, who was selected by Mayor John Peyton in July 2003. Barrett and firefighters were heavy supporters of Peyton, who took over the mayor's office that same month.

Barrett said he is willing to work with Peyton to find a replacement and believes the department can promote from within. He said he has a short list of candidates to share with the mayor. He would not say who he thought would be a good replacement.

"We've got some good, qualified people," said Barrett, who will mark 32 years with the department on Saturday. He said he plans to wait six months or so after the city budget now in process is finalized to begin discussing a replacement with Peyton.

Peyton spokeswoman Susie Wiles said the mayor knew Barrett was intending to retire and that there is ample time to consider a replacement.

"We still have a lot of time to think about Rick's successor," she said.

She said no thought has been given to whether a replacement would again be from within the ranks.

Barrett, who rose to chief from battalion chief overseeing about 300 firefighters, replaced Ray Alfred, who was the city's first black fire chief and was hired out of Washington, D.C.

Alfred's tenure dissatisfied the city firefighters union, whose members wanted him removed. Peyton won the firefighters endorsement after saying he would replace Alfred with someone from within the department.

Peyton and the union were then faced with allegations of racism, which they denied.

Union President Roger Lewis said Thursday the department would be better served with an internal candidate to replace Barrett.

"We saw what the disconnection was with a person from the outside," he said. "Morale is high on the fire department right now."

Lewis said an in-house history like Barrett's eases things like internal communications up and down the ranks and will help as many of the department's older members retire and younger troops take over.

"I believe the best leadership for the Jacksonville fire department comes from Jacksonville," he said.

Barrett was part of a city program that defers salary into a retirement fund but is tied to a retirement date. He left the program after becoming chief and lost about $300,000 in money that he would have gotten after retiring.

But with his chief's salary, he is expected to regain an equivalent amount under the two-year investment in the program, said John Keane, who administers the pension fund for police and fire departments.

Keane said the final calculations of what Barrett will accrue in the account in two years have not been done, but he said the chief let a sure thing go when he dropped from the program.

"He took a chance to serve in that leadership capacity," Keane said.

dana.treenjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4091