Council continues to rail against raises

Published 11:08 am Saturday, November 23, 2013

By Richard Meek

Contributing Writer

LAPLACE – A special meeting of the St. John the Baptist Parish Council on Wednesday night turned into more than two hours of verbal altercations and accusations, with minimum success at reaching compromises.
The sequel is set for Tuesday night at a regularly scheduled meeting.
Much of the discussion during the acrimonious two-and-half-hour meeting was focused on Parish President Natalie Robottom’s proposal to grant 5 percent raises to herself as well as department heads and nonclassified employees. She defended her position during several heated exchanges with council members, notably Marvin Perrilloux and Larry Snyder.
Robottom said the raises total $55,000, adding that she believes it’s a small amount when looking at an overall $60 million budget. At one point she accused Perrilloux of depriving her employees of receiving raises.
In a previous special meeting, the council voted to freeze all raises for Robottom and nonclassified employees.
Raises for classified employees, essentially civil service workers, are implemented differently, Robottom said, adding that by ordinance they receive a 3 to 5 percent annual bump. Some of that is based on an employee’s length of service, but traditionally the council has approved 5 percent raises for all civil service workers.
Perrilloux said his objection was with the raises for the president and department heads.
“I’m not good (with the raises),” Perrilloux said. “We are a poor tax parish. I want to know where the 5 percent is coming from and why I have to give 5 percent across the board.
“I don’t see us growing. We can’t afford to be giving 5 percent raises every year.”
Robottom countered by saying that Perrilloux wanted to give raises to civil service workers but not to “qualified, competent workers.”
“It’s about fairness. It’s about equity,” she said, adding that nonclassified workers are not paid overtime but earn compensatory time. She said most, however, are unable to use all of their comp time and said civil service workers are paid overtime every time they “step out” after working hours.
“We are not getting overtime, but we are here night and day, working on weekends,” she said. “The (freeze) did not treat everybody fairly.
“It was (as if) the council wanted to make sure this one small group did not get raises.”
Snyder told the parish president she “made a big thing out of it.”
“You made a big thing out of it,” Robottom retorted, her voice rising. “Is there anything else you are concerned about (in the budget) other than denying people raises?”
She said council members could have met with her individually to discuss the budget privately.
“I really don’t like the way things have gone,” Councilman Lucien Gauff said. “We are getting conflicting information.”
He said he was advised by legal counsel that sending the administration budget questions could be in violation of the open meeting law.
At one point, Council Chair Jaclyn Hotard called a brief recess, but some of the in-house bickering continued. After reconvening, debate between the council and administration continued on several fronts.
Although discussion previous to the recess centered on saving money by not approving raises, council members passed one measure and discussed another that would add funding to certain departments.
The only official business of the meeting occurred when Snyder’s motion was approved to add $300,000 to the $1 million already budgeted for road maintenance, bringing the total to $1.3 million. But even that turned into a lengthy debate.
Robottom and other administration officials said the additional funding was unnecessary because $2.2 million of the $30 million bond voters approved this past weekend is dedicated to road maintenance. Snyder’s motion passed 7-1 with Gauff voting against it. Council member Cheryl Millett was unable to attend the meeting.
Council members also discussed the possibility of increasing the number of hours worked by code enforcement officers. Currently, four officers are working four hours a day, but there appears to be some growing support to having them work six hours a day, which would result in an estimated $20,0000 in salary costs.
“I think our people should work two more hours a day with all we have going on,” Snyder said. “We could do a lot more work.”
He said $20,000 would not have a significant impact on the budget.
Also debated was the effectiveness of the economic development tax, which council member Ranney Wilson labeled “a nightmare.”
He said the purpose of the tax is to recruit business development but added he doesn’t “see where much of any of that is happening.”
“I’m ready to go back to the people and ask them to (repeal) it,” he added. “It’s a slush fund.”
Torri Buckles, director of economic development, vehemently disagreed, saying she is in discussions with several prospects totaling an estimated $1.7 billion in potential investments.
She also said the parish has a 96 percent retention rate of existing businesses, crediting several initiatives her office has implemented for the uptick.
“There’s a lot going on here,” Buckles said. “I wish I could be more specific.”
As the night dragged on and the discussion turned to whether a full-time employee should be dedicated to making street signs, as is the current situation in public works, Hotard called for adjournment, which was quickly seconded and approved.
The next meeting is scheduled at 6:30 p.m. at the Percy D. Hebert Building in LaPlace.