The few Baton Rouge Metro Council members at Tuesday’s budget hearing did not let their small number stand in the way of drilling down into the mayor’s proposed budget.
The five council members at the budget hearing pressed Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration for answers about why pay raises were not included in the proposed budget, a topic that has become a key issue for some on the council. The council members also asked police, fire and emergency medical services representatives for updates on diversifying their ranks and for ways to better engage residents.
Marsha Hanlon, the city’s director of finance, defended the budget she crafted for including the same merit increases for employees that the city has provided for many years. While Hanlon deems the merit increases the same as pay raises, many people who work for the city do not because they are part of a pay plan that was promised all along.
“It’s the definition of a raise that’s in question here,” said William Daniel, Holden’s chief administrative officer.
Anyone who works for city government follows a 12-step pay plan, which includes merit raises at each step. In addition, the city also gives longevity pay to reward those who have worked for the city for 10 years or more.
Councilwoman Ronnie Edwards asked how it’s possible for city workers to be receiving this money, but to say they have not received raises in years. She said the communication between employees and supervisors may have led to the disconnect, and questioned if the council should have workshops that better explain the pay plan.
Union representatives have been asking the council for additional pay raises for years, and Daniel recently proposed a revamped pay plan that would change the pay scale to a 22-step plan. While Daniel’s proposed plan would give 2 percent across-the-board pay increases, it also reels in benefits like sick leave that accumulates over time and can currently be put toward early retirement.
Daniel’s plan would cost more than $5 million, and Holden’s administration hopes to push it through in early 2015. Hanlon acknowledged that the proposed 2015 budget is too tight for pay raises.
“The resources just weren’t there yet,” Hanlon said. “We’ve got to identify resources to fund the raise.”
Council members also asked about what each department is doing to add more diversity. Baton Rouge Police Chief Carl Dabadie mentioned his hopes to hire a diversity officer to help with recruitment. The Baton Rouge Police Department has come under fire in the past for its overwhelmingly white makeup.
Fire Chief Ed Smith said the department had success recently in recruiting veterans and National Guard members.
Chad Guillot, interim EMS administrator, said diversity has skyrocketed since he started as a paramedic when he was mostly surrounded by men. He reported that 52 percent of the EMS employees are female and said most paramedics are in their late 20s or early 30s, younger than in the past.
The council members also questioned how police, fire and EMS could become more accountable to their communities and teach people about what they do.
Dabadie said the police department has held citizens academies in the past to give people a taste of what is learned in police academies. Smith said the fire department tried having that kind of program, but the turnout was low.
Guillot said EMS has an Explorer program, where high school students receive first responder verifications and are encouraged to consider futures as paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
The next budget hearing will be Nov. 24 and include updates from the Department of Public Works, Juvenile Services and the Library.