Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis is expected to sign an executive order soon enabling the city to better manage what he called a "stampede" of police and fire department employees quitting under the city's early retirement plan.

More than 50 firefighters and police officers retired early this year under the incentive program after the City Council temporarily placed the plan on the chopping block, creating a panic, officials said.Retirees took more than $1 million in incentive pay with them and the exodus created a temporary but disquieting loss of manpower in both departments, officials said.

Under the new plan to be signed by DePaulis, the "window" during which those wanting to take advantage of the early retirement program would be narrowed to a two-month period in July and August.

"By closing the window, we can control the whole thing better," DePaulis said. Retirees under the plan must notify the city of their retirement early, giving it time to adjust for decreased manpower, he added.

Under the old plan, employees could retire early at any time and still receive a portion of their base salary and other benefits as incentive pay. The plan enabled the city to eventually hire replacements at lower salaries, saving personnel costs.

But city policy dictates that positions vacated by retirees can only be filled without budget impact. That means positions vacated under the plan can't be filled until the next fiscal year.

In the fire department, the 23 firefighter positions vacated this year will remain empty until next fiscal year when, depending on the outcome of three tax-cutting initiatives, they may or may not be filled.

The loss of fire-department personnel under the early retirement has reduced the average company from four to three people, City Council Budget Analyst Cam Caldwell told the City Council last week. That is less than an ideal staff for the city, he said.

Fire department personnel left with $392,000 in early retirement incentive pay, said Jane Erickson, program administrator for the city's Human Resource Management Department.

In the police department, 30 officers retired under the program, Maj. Sam Leaver said. Twenty-five officers were recently hired, 16 of whom are already on the streets.

"I think some of them were afraid they were getting mixed signals from the council," he said.

Officers retiring under the incentive program left with $801,316, Erickson said.

DePaulis said the council triggered the "stampede" when Councilman W.M. "Willie" Stoler suggested the program be scuttled because the incentive program offers an unreasonable amount of compensation.

Stoler said, however, the program "was not something that came up on the chopping block." Rather, he discussed "whether it (the early retirement program) was accomplishing what everybody claimed it would accomplish."

Although fewer employees will be eligible for the program next year, another mass exodus could be avoided in the future if the council does not cast doubt on the future of the program, DePaulis said.

"My position is that we need a signal from the council that they have no intention of trying to close the program," he said.