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LC leaders mull pay raise possibility

Last Modified: Saturday, February 08, 2014 1:08 PM

By Justin B. Phillips / American Press

It’s been a few years since Lake Charles city employees, firemen and policemen have gotten pay raises. The last increases were in 2008 and 2009. City finances can be complicated, and finding the funds for employee pay raises, even more so.

For City Administrator John Cardone and Finance Director Karen Harrell, the lack of progress isn’t due to a lack of trying. Friday, the two city officials spent some time discussing the pay raise process.

The discussion began earlier in the week at the regular City Council meeting. A resolution requesting the city raise the minimum wage to $9.50 was dissected before eventually being voted down by the council. Cardone and Harrell have both spent countless hours searching for ways to provide the wage increase over the years and after the resolution was voted down, they wanted the city employees to know the search isn’t over.

After the city’s new, modified pay plan was put in place in 2003, a focus was placed on city employees being able to advance in their positions through career paths. For example, instead of an employee being a general maintenance employee, he or she could be labeled as a general maintenance worker 1, 2 or 3. The more time and experience the employee gains, the further along the career path he or she can move. Currently, just increasing the minimum wage for city employees is a process that would require a number of steps. Understanding the steps is understanding the city’s pay scale.

“Although we think that’s a great idea, it’s not as simple as it sounds because when you raise the starting pay of a position, you really have to raise the pay of the others in that range accordingly,” Cardone said. “So if you would just raise the starting pay from $8.25 to $9.50 per hour, what that does is that compresses all those so they’re all the same. It just doesn’t work.”

It would cost the city more than $1.2 million to increase the minimum wage to $9.50 and that only includes employees in the career service plan. Still, the city is trying to find ways to make the raises possible. The early steps consist of surveys. Every few years, the city conducts salary surveys in hopes of improving the starting pay and possibly even supplying other employees with raises.

“The reason we decided not to pursue a pay increase last year is because of the deficits we’ve been funding the last several years. I don’t think anyone would argue that we want to give a pay increase to our employees,” Cardone said. “We have a great group of employees, both career, noncareer and public safety, but you have to have the funds to pay it. If you try to just increase pay without having the funds to pay for it, that isn’t very responsible.”

Outside of the effects of the 2008 recession, another component tying the city’s hands when it comes to wage increases is the city’s retirement contributions. The cost in 2014 is around $3.4 million more than it was in 2009. The Fire Department has increased from 14 percent to 28.25 percent and the Police Department has increased from 11 percent to 31 percent. Cardone said because of the state retirement system, the burden falls on the city to cover the added costs.

“It’s not the fault of the employees. It’s not the fault of the city of Lake Charles,” Cardone said. “We were hoping those would go down and it would help us out as we go through our process. It continues to go up.”

Harrell said the effects of being in a position where the raises aren’t available is tough for the employees themselves and the city officials trying to find a way to get them done.

“As we’ve gone through the budget process the last several years, we’ve discussed the fact that we’ve not been able to fund pay raises and how long it had been since our public safety and career service employees have had an increase. Our career services have not had increases since 2008, and our fire and police have not had pay increases since 2009. That’s a long time to go without a cost-of-living increase,” Harrell said. “It’s our desire to give pay increases when the funds are available. There’s only so much money in the pot and when you have those retirement contributions costing as much as they are, it’s really hard to be able to increase those salaries anymore than they already are.”

With the whispers of a possible economic boom somewhere down the road, the question has been raised whether the pay raises are just around the corner. The reality is that even with the new business coming to the area, a wage increase would still be years down the road. Even if Lake Charles grows during the boom, the city would still face operating expenses and infrastructure improvements to things like the roads, water, sewer and drainage.

“We are optimistic. There’s about $65 billion worth of projects on the books. We think it’s going to have a positive impact for the city of Lake Charles and we’re hoping our sales tax increases, which is a major part of our funding source,” Cardone said. “We anticipate trying to bring something to the council for the next budget year, which would be a plan that says this is what we think our salaries need to be. These are some potential funding sources.”

As Cardone and Harrell continue to be creative in their pursuit of one day funding a wage increase, the importance of improving the city pay scale to be competitive in the job market is still key to the officials. Cardone said he doesn’t want the city to be a training ground for workers.

“To give you an example, our operators require certifications. They come here, they require certifications from DEQ. The ones that work at our wastewater plants and our water plants so they come here, they get their certifications,” Cardone said. “We train them and then they go over to the industries next door because of the higher salary. You’re always going to lose some employees to job opportunities, but what you want to do is maintain a majority of your workforce and to do that, you have to be competitive and we recognize that.”

At the end of the day, the city continues to battle deficits, pay increasing retirement contributions and navigate the costs of infrastructure improvements. Until one aspect becomes stable, pay raises are still somewhat far away. Cardone and Harrell continue to pursue viable options because, for them, the city’s employees are invaluable.

“The administration, the City Council, we all appreciate what our employees do. They do an excellent job. They demonstrate that time and time again,” Cardone said. “I don’t think you can ask for a better group. It’s just that we’ve been on some difficult times lately.”

Posted By: Paul Brown On: 2/22/2014

Title: L C Leaders

Finding ways to pay employees a higher wage is a difficult situation; however, I do not think that cutting employees to raise the remaining employees wages will help the local economy. Rewarding employees (in some fashion that would be attractive to the individual) for coming up with money saving ideas for the city can be a start. Ask them to participate. combining some of their ideas may be a way to raise their income even if it is temporary and intermittent reward.

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