For more than a year, St. Tammany Parish has been seething with discontent over public officials’ salaries after revelations of exorbitant sums paid to the parish’s former coroner and sweetheart insurance and retirement plans employed by District Attorney Walter Reed.
But that mood did not deter Parish Council members from proposing Thursday that their own salaries be increased from their current level of $2,300 a month. Under the parish’s home rule charter, the salaries cannot be increased until the next council takes office Jan. 1, 2016.
Under the proposal introduced Thursday night, council members’ salaries would be increased at the average percentage increase of the parish’s approximately 500 other employees.
Despite some objections in the audience, some council members were unapologetic about supporting the increase.
“I earn every penny that I made in the year 2014 at $2,300 a month, every penny,” said Jerry Binder, who represents a Slidell-area district.
Binder said council members frequently drive all over the parish and “don’t receive a penny for our insurance, our gasoline or anything.”
Councilwoman Maureen O’Brien, who last month helped torpedo a millage increase for the parish library system, emphasized that the raise would not mean an extra burden on the taxpayers.
“This does not increase taxes whatsoever,” she said. “This is, in essence, a cost-of-living increase.”
Resident Carlo Hernandez, a frequent speaker at council meetings, did not seem mollified.
“When the home rule charter was adopted in 1998, (council members’ salary) was $1,200 a month,” he pointed out.
St. Tammany’s council members are underpaid in comparison with their south shore counterparts. Council members in Jefferson Parish earn $71,000 per year for district members and $107,000 for the two at-large members. In Orleans Parish, members earn about $83,000 per year. But council seats in both those parishes are considered to be full-time or near full-time jobs, unlike St. Tammany, where most council members have outside jobs.
St. Tammany’s council is similar in size to the East Baton Rouge Metro Council, whose 12 members each get $1,000 salary plus an $800 car allowance per month.
Steve Stefancik, who helped craft the proposed ordinance, said that if the parish encounters hard economic times, the council could reduce its salaries at any time.
The council will hold a public hearing and vote on the matter Oct. 2.
Before the discussion of the salary issue, several people urged greater civility and respect at council meetings, which of late have been characterized by angry disputes. Their comments stemmed from last month’s meeting, which lasted nearly six hours and featured several contentious debates.
League of Women Voters President Sandra Slifer, St. Tammany West Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lacey Toledano and attorney Jeff Schoen each urged the council to make civility a priority in their debates.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.