GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council mulled sweetening the pot on parish employee pay but took no action Thursday before approving a $119.6 million budget for 2015.
The newly approved budget contains authority for up to a 5 percent pay raise that will take effect sometime in May, June, July or August and health insurance with improved benefits.
The overall budget, which the council supported 6-0, is $24.9 million more than what the parish will end up spending in 2014 — about $94.7 million — but that difference is primarily fattened by new and existing capital projects that carry over from one year to the next.
Councilmen Chris Loar, Benny Johnson, Bryan Melancon and Todd Lambert were absent Thursday.
Council Chairman Randy Clouatre does not vote unless to break a tie.
Before the budget was approved, council members and administration officials discussed the competitiveness of their pay rates, in particular for in-house engineers, and whether developers should pay more in fees to help cover more in-house engineering staff.
The back-and-forth on pay was sparked when Councilwoman Teri Casso pressed Parish President Tommy Martinez why employees would not get their raises until May or later.
“If I was an employee, and I’m just looking at this from their perspective, I want my raise in January. If I’m getting a 5 percent raise, then I want my raise for the whole year, not half the year,” she said.
But Martinez responded that he has delayed employee raises to the middle of the year every year since 2008 so he has budget flexibility in case of major storms or other events that affect the budget early in the fiscal year.
He argued that, in effect, giving raises in January or in the middle of year makes little difference. Parish employees won’t be getting a full year of last year’s 3 percent raise until 2015.
“It amounts to the same thing,” Martinez said.
He prevailed on that issue for Thursday but then pointed out that the raises are an attempt to keep Ascension competitive when pay rates are good in the booming chemical corridor and laborers can earn $15 to $20 per hour starting out.
Casso said her questions about the raises stemmed from her own concerns about competitiveness, in particular because the parish is about to start major capital projects that need engineering review.
The parish government spending plan calls for nearly $43 million in capital improvements. New projects include the first phase of a planned parish sewer system, which is being paid for with a low-interest loan through the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Martinez told Casso that the parish is competitive in the market for starting engineers, but when officials look for senior engineers who can earn $120,000 to $150,000 per year, the parish is offering only $80,000 to $90,000 per year.
“So that’s where we’re at,” Martinez said.
Casso asked the council to consider keeping the parish competitive or the parish will have a revolving door of staff that would reduce performance.
“We are experiencing that at this current time,” Martinez responded. “But we are going to work through it and get things done so it won’t be a problem.”
For the past several years, Martinez has shepherded the creation and expansion of an in-house engineering department to cut down on outside engineering fees and to move along parish work, but the parish recently lost a key engineer who reviewed development plans. The parish has had to hire an outside firm, T. Baker Smith, to do the work at a cost of $90,000 per year.
Martinez pointed out that the parish spends about $160,000 on one engineer and an engineer in training to review plans for new development, but the parish only collects about $80,000 per year in fees. Martinez suggested that if developers want plans to move faster, they should pay more in fees to hire the extra staff.
Councilman Kent Schexnaydre argued the parish should cover the difference because of the public demand for better review of growth and the broad benefits from new development that includes not just housing but commercial construction.
“I don’t believe that,” Martinez said. “Why should we pay the difference for a developer to pay their cost to build a house and make a profit on it?”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.