It’s taken almost two years, but the salary of the St. Tammany Parish coroner has resurfaced as a political issue.
In 2013, prompted by the misdeeds of then-Coroner Peter Galvan, the Legislature granted the St. Tammany Parish Council greater control over the Coroner’s Office’s finances, and the council knocked the job’s salary down to $84,000.
That compared with the roughly $200,000 Galvan had paid himself for what many consider a part-time position.
The new salary, though, was relatively low for a physician. Pramod Menon, the Covington cardiologist who served as the interim coroner after Galvan resigned in late 2013, called the proposed salary a “slap in the face” if the parish expected the coroner to work full time.
When Charles Preston was elected in May 2014 to fill the remainder of Galvan’s term, he didn’t make an issue of the salary. Nor did he when he ran unopposed for re-election last year.
But now the issue has come up again, after Councilman Jerry Binder proposed increasing Preston’s salary from $84,000 to $137,779. The 64 percent increase has raised some eyebrows among Tammany government watchdogs.
“I just think it’s a little bit too much,” said Rick Franzo, president of the group Concerned Citizens of St. Tammany. CCST led the movement to recall Galvan, and Franzo cites that experience as a reason for caution in increasing the salary.
“After all we went through, to have a 64 percent increase is crazy,” he said, referring to Galvan’s defiance in the face of mounting disclosures about his financial dealings, including ones that would eventually land him in federal and state prison.
Franzo conceded that Preston has done a good job and probably deserves a raise, but he said it should be “more considerate and realistic,” maybe to $100,000 or $110,000.
The job “is a lot more demanding than I would have originally anticipated,” he said, describing how he now sleeps with his agency phone by his bedside and often drops what he’s doing to go to death scenes.
While the raise may look dramatic, Preston pointed out that he earns less than half of what three physicians on his payroll make.
For Binder, the key factor is how much time Preston puts in. Galvan was working at the office only part time for his $200,000 salary, and that is the assumption the parish used when setting the $84,000 salary. Preston is “progressive” and working “40 to 50 hours a week,” Binder said. “We see the fruits of his labor,” he added.
Binder also pointed out that the raise would come out of the coroner’s existing budget, which is drawn from a dedicated tax. He said Preston already has brought about enough cost savings at the office to more than offset the pay hike.
Even with the raise, Preston’s salary would still be far less than those for the coroners of East Baton Rouge and Caddo, two similarly sized parishes, Binder said. It would be similar to that of Jefferson Parish Coroner Gerry Cvitanovich, but he also maintains a private practice, while Preston does not, Binder added.
Binder’s resolution also would put Preston’s salary on a parish employee step system, allowing his salary to go up one step — about 3 percent — every year.
The Parish Council is expected to vote on the raise Thursday night.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.