LC leaders mull pay raise possibility

By 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.”