Baton Rouge's Metro Council might try daring move, challenge Kip Holden to include city employee pay raises in 2015 budget _lowres

John Delgado

With the backing of a portion of the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, Councilman John Delgado is mustering a challenge to the mayor’s proposed budget for next year, hoping to include pay raises for city workers.

Tinkering with Mayor-President Kip Holden’s budget proposal is a move that nobody has dared take on since a 2011 showdown between the council and mayor, when the council moved $1.5 million in the budget despite the mayor’s threats that it could result in drastic repercussions for city government.

Traditionally, council members don’t make substantive changes to the mayor’s budget proposal, but Delgado and some of his colleagues said now might be the time to break that precedent again. City workers have been pleading for pay raises for years. While the Holden administration has come up with a revamped pay scale, including a 2 percent raise, city officials want to put off finalizing anything until early next year.

If the council succeeds in moving a raise into the 2015 budget to be voted on next month, the fallout could heighten hostility between council members and the mayor, as happened in 2011. At that time, Holden said the council “put us in probably the worst financial situation we’ve ever been in.”

The discussion about city employee pay has been years in the making. The council commissioned a pay study years ago that showed city workers were underpaid compared with their peers in similar cities. Since then, there hasn’t been any serious move to rework how the employees are paid. This year, pay raises have become a rallying cry for union representatives, who spent the past few weeks trying to negotiate pay raises with the Mayor’s Office.

Delgado said he is scrutinizing the 500-page, $830 million proposed budget for wiggle room and is calculating how much money agencies are receiving above what they requested. In his first look through the budget, Delgado said, he’s identified almost $1 million he believes can be moved. He needs $3.6 million for a 2 percent across-the-board pay raise.

Holden questioned Delgado’s ability to find fat to trim.

“Show me what you’re going to cut, how you’re going to provide money for all of these services, what are going to be the impacts on people?” Holden said. “Will this result in layoffs? Will this result in cutbacks in services?”

Holden said that if the council moves money in the budget or dips into the city-parish’s reserve accounts — as they did in 2011 — it will result in unintended consequences. The reserve accounts, like savings accounts, are usually restricted for emergency use and changes in them could affect bond ratings, he said.

In 2011, the council made the then-novel move to shift around $1.5 million to give raises to workers in two agencies, to provide operating funds for other agencies and to give the council control of the mayor’s discretionary accounts. As part of this, the Metro Council took $535,000 from the city-parish’s reserve accounts.

Holden at the time predicted that the city’s bonds would be downgraded and city workers would have to be laid off and furloughed.

There ended up not being those kind of dire implications. But after the budget confrontations, bad feelings between Holden and council members festered.

Even knowing what happened three years ago, Delgado said he did not believe Holden would end up angry about changes.

“This is not moving around money to satisfy our pet projects or anything like that,” Delgado said. “We’re trying to take care of our employees, which are also the mayor’s employees. I don’t view this as a fight between me and the mayor, or the council and the mayor.”

Mayor Pro-Tem Chandler Loupe led the way on the 2011 budget battles. This year, he said changing the budget will be more difficult.

Loupe does not plan to be part of the budget battles again and said reworking the budget is “really not likely to happen.” He said he plans to approve the mayor’s budget as proposed, though he believes city workers do deserve substantial raises.

Delgado will need eight of the 12 council members to approve the changes. The council only has one opportunity each year to move around money in the budget, and it must make line-item changes to do so.

It is unclear if Delgado has enough backing from other council members to succeed, but the longtime pleas for pay raises have left an impression on council members that could give him substantial support. Council members C. Denise Marcelle, Ronnie Edwards, Chauna Banks-Daniel, Tara Wicker and Buddy Amoroso have all said they are looking for ways to give raises to city workers. Councilwoman Donna-Collins Lewis has expressed her support for pay raises in the past, and Councilman Trae Welch said he would have to take a closer look at what Delgado is proposing and that he also believes city employees deserve more money.

“The pendulum is swinging toward the majority of the council wanting to make sure our employees get city pay raises,” Edwards said.

Union representatives from the Department of Public Works and the Baton Rouge Fire Department have called on the Mayor’s Office to give them 6 percent raises. DPW employees also presented a petition to the Metro Council last week, asking members to reject the mayor’s budget unless it includes pay raises.

The mayor’s Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel unveiled an administration pay plan a few weeks ago, saying all the city could afford would be a 2 percent raise, along with a restructuring of the pay scale. Union representatives have clashed with Daniel, denouncing the proposal because it asks them to give up benefits like accumulated sick leave in exchange for the pay hikes.

Daniel’s pay plan would cost the city $5.6 million. He said negotiations are too far behind for the pay plan to be included in the 2015 budget, and he instead would look to pass a budget supplement in early 2015. Police, fire and DPW unions are still negotiating with the Mayor’s Office.

Delgado has drawn a distinction between his proposed pay raise and Daniel’s proposed pay plan, saying they have different goals. Delgado’s proposed pay raise would bump up city workers’ salaries by 2 percent but would not change benefits.

Daniel’s pay plan also would rework the city-parish’s pay structure, which Delgado believes is what makes that proposal more expensive.

The Metro Council will hold budget hearings over the next two weeks, where representatives from different departments will brief members on their budget allocations. The council will then vote Dec. 9 on whether to approve the mayor’s budget.

Advocate staff writer Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.