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Future unclear for Youngstown chief of police



Published: Sun, December 5, 2010 @ 12:09 a.m.

Jimmy Hughes could retire, then be rehired to post

By David Skolnick

skolnick@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Jimmy Hughes’ future as chief of the city’s police department is uncertain.

The primary reason is Hughes’ sign-up in 2003 for a state retirement program — the Deferred Retirement Option Plan, known as DROP.

The program allows police officers to accumulate a large lump-sum of money for retirement, about $500,000 in the case of Hughes.

But there is a catch.

Those who sign up for the program have up to eight years to retire. If they continue working after eight years, those officers lose all of that money, said David Graham, spokesman for the Ohio Police and Fire Pension Fund, which runs the program.

Hughes, 58, said his eight years will be up in May.

But Hughes doesn’t want to stop being the city’s police chief, a job he’s ha d since January 2006.

The only guarantee Hughes has from Mayor Jay Williams is he’ll be chief until his required retirement date.

“I stand behind him,” Williams said. “There has been measurable progress with him as chief. No one can take away the good work Police Chief Jimmy Hughes has done for the city.”

Hughes wants to retire from the job that pays him $87,915 annually and then be rehired. If that happens, Hughes can start collecting his pension and have access to his DROP account.

Williams said it’s premature to decide if he’d rehire Hughes because the police chief hasn’t yet retired.

If Hughes isn’t rehired, Williams said he’ll conduct a national search for the next police chief.

About 12 to 15 of the police department’s most experienced and highest-ranked officers are expected to retire this year through the DROP program.

“The police department is in a state of transition,” Williams said. “An argument can be made in terms of stability [to rehire Hughes]. There’s an argument in terms of bringing a fresh perspective to the department. I’ll look at the pros and cons and what’s in the best interest of the police department and the community.”

Hughes and Williams say they’ve had preliminary discussions about this issue.

“I want to stay on,” Hughes said. “I want to continue to work. It’s just what I do. I’d love to stay on as chief. It’s all I know. If I retire and don’t come back here I will work someplace else in an executive law-enforcement job.”

Hughes, hired as a Youngstown patrolman in May 1977, said, “It would be kind of devastating [to the department] for me to leave with the other retirements and a change in leadership as police chief. It’s going to be a hit to the police department and a hit to the city. If I’m not kept on, it would be a detriment to the city.”

DROP allows more-senior police officers and firefighters to accumulate a lump-sum of money to be paid after retirement.

Every month, DROP participants pay 10 percent of their salaries to DROP with the state pension fund providing 5 percent interest on that amount and a 3 percent cost-of-living allowance increase annually, Graham said.

After The Vindicator provided Hughes’ salary, age and years on the force when he signed up for DROP nearly eight years ago, Graham calculated that the chief has more than $500,000 in his DROP fund.

Hughes had mentioned that he might give up his DROP fund to remain police chief. He added that he hadn’t calculated how much he has in the fund except to say, “It’s a substantial amount of money.”

When told the amount by The Vindicator, Hughes said it’s unlikely he’d turn it down.

Several council members praised Hughes as a police chief. They said it is up to the mayor to decide what to do about the position.

Hughes said he’s done well as police chief despite a decline in officers from about 220 a decade ago to 160 now.

To date, there have been 20 homicides in Youngstown this year. That would be the lowest number of homicides in the city since 2003 when there were 19.

There were 32 homicides in 2006, Hughes’ first year as chief; 39 in 2007, the most since 1998 with 47; 28 in 2008, and 21 last year.

The city has averaged 28 homicides a year under Hughes, 29 annually between 2000 and 2005, and 48 a year in the 1990s.

Handling murders is the most challenging part of the job, Hughes said.

“The stress level is so high,” he said. “You think [some of] the cases are so hard and challenging, and you’re never going to solve them.”

But one of the best parts of the job is seeing “everyone come together and solve these cases, sometimes in record time,” Hughes said.

The chief still stings a bit from comments Williams made in April 2009 that Hughes is a “work in progress,” that he’d give Hughes a grade of C-plus or B-minus for his work, and that he wouldn’t give any other department head in his administration a lower grade. Williams gave himself the same grade as mayor as he gave Hughes at the time.

But Williams recently said he’s pleased with Hughes’ job performance.

Even though he was a police cadet as a teenager, Hughes was initially hesitant to join the force.

Hughes wanted to be an accountant when he enrolled at Youngstown State University after graduating from East High School in 1971. He quickly found out “it wasn’t for me.”

He left school and worked as an overhead crane operator at the former Commercial Sharon plant on Logan Avenue.

Hughes passed the police entrance test in 1974, but there was a hiring freeze until 1975. Still, Hughes didn’t decide to join the force until 1977.

“I grew up in the projects, and we didn’t think of the police as the go-to guys,” he said.

Hughes changed his mind after working four consecutive hot days at the plant on a crane near the plant’s tin roof.

When he left work on that fourth day, Hughes said he saw a police officer in a pressed uniform next to a shiny cruiser eating ice cream and talking to “two pretty girls.”

He called the police department the next day and joined the force even though the plant job paid significantly more than the $8,900 annual salary for a patrolman.


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