Money from the recent oil spill settlement with BP could fund raises for Jefferson Parish employees almost to the end of 2019, with money left over for improvements throughout the parish, according to the parish councilman behind the plan.
Councilman Ben Zahn introduced an ordinance earlier this month that would lift parish employees’ salaries by 5 percent across the board. How he proposes to pay for the raises has been questioned by some critics.
Councilman Elton Lagasse has said he wants the BP money to go toward areas of the parish hardest hit by the spill; he said he supports the idea of raises but thinks they should be paid for some other way. Some critics also have asked how wise it is to use one-time money for a recurring expense.
In an interview Wednesday, Zahn defended his proposal. He acknowledged that the parish will have to count on growing tax revenue or even cost-cutting to continue paying the higher salaries starting in about the last quarter of 2019. But he said there will be adequate money left over for projects in each of the parish’s council districts.
“I, at least in my ordinance, offer a minimum four-year plan to keep the general fund whole while making sure capital infrastructure improvement monies go to all five districts,” Zahn said.
Zahn’s office pointed out that while some parish employees have received merit-based raises in recent years, there has been only one across-the-board raise to address higher living costs since 2007.
Where Lagasse and Zahn differ is on whether to finance the raises with money Jefferson Parish is receiving after settling its lawsuit against BP over lost sales tax revenue following the 2010 oil spill.
After attorneys’ fees are paid and money is given to special parish districts dedicated to purposes such as fire protection, sewage and lighting, the parish will have about $34.7 million left to work with, Zahn’s office said.
Lagasse, who is running to become Jefferson’s next parish president, this month introduced a resolution — approved unanimously by the council — asking Parish President John Young to give 5 percent cost-of-living raises beginning next year.
But Lagasse does not want to use BP money to fund those raises. He said he wants the settlement to benefit communities along the Gulf Coast that took the brunt of the spill’s impact, such as Grand Isle and the town of Jean Lafitte.
Lagasse said he’d prefer to pay for the raises using general parish funds but has not given specifics. He did not respond to an interview request Wednesday.
Zahn countered that other pending litigation is expected to bring in tens of millions of dollars to restore the coast and compensate places like Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte for damage done by the BP spill as well as decades of work done in the area by the oil and gas industry.
Zahn’s ordinance would give each of the five council districts about $4 million of the BP windfall to use on building projects or other improvements. That would leave almost $15 million of the BP money, more than enough to cover the raises over the next four years, Zahn’s office said.
The raises would cost the parish in the neighborhood of $6.7 million annually, according to calculations done by Zahn’s office and Parish Finance Director Timothy Palmatier.
Zahn’s office projects that revenue from existing property taxes dedicated to special districts would cover all but about $2.4 million of that annual cost, money that would have to come out of the general fund.
His plan is to deposit enough money from the BP settlement to finance the employee raises for about four years in an account that would generate interest. That would be about $9.6 million, leaving about $5 million from the BP settlement to be put into the general fund and spent as needed, Zahn’s office said.
Zahn originally intended for the employee raises to be retroactive to January. But he said Wednesday that it’s more likely they would take effect this fall.
Lagasse may not be the only one opposed to Zahn’s plan. When Lagasse released his statement opposing the use of BP settlement money for the raises, Parish Councilman Chris Roberts linked to it on his Twitter account and wrote, “This is so very true and needs our attention.”
Councilman Ricky Templet, whose district includes Grand Isle and Jean Lafitte, said he would oppose using BP money on raises, saying he couldn’t expect state and federal officials to prioritize coastal restoration if he himself doesn’t.
A frequent Zahn ally, Councilwoman Cynthia Lee-Sheng, stopped short of endorsing Zahn’s proposal but said it was worthy of “very serious conversation.”
“We might see some amendments” before the proposal is put up for a vote, Lee-Sheng said. “It’s early.”
Zahn’s office said he realizes amendments may be necessary.