St. Charles council to consider amendments to parish charter _lowres

St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre

St. Charles Parish officials this week will take up a series of proposals that would amend the parish’s home rule charter to increase the salaries of the president and Parish Council members, prohibit an interim council member from seeking the seat permanently in a special election and give the council slightly more leeway to amend the parish budget.

The four measures, proposed by Councilman Paul Hogan, are scheduled for a vote by the council’s Legislative Committee on Tuesday. If approved, they could be voted on by the full council next month and scheduled for a public vote in November.

If approved by the voters, they would take effect in 2016, after the next parish election.

Under the proposed changes, the parish president’s annual pay would jump to $125,000, up from about $120,000. Council members would see their pay rise to $18,500 for an at-large position, up from $14,055, and to $15,000 for a district seat, up from $10,545. After those initial hikes, the president and council members would be eligible for annual 3.75 percent increases, not to exceed 15 percent over a four-year period.

“You want to make the salary commensurate with the surrounding parishes and make it such that you get people that will be willing to throw their name in the hat to take the job,” Hogan said. “It’s a time-consuming job, you’ve got to put a lot into it, and you need to make the salary commensurable with all the headaches it takes.”

Though he is term-limited, St. Charles Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said a few residents have sought him out to see if he would be interested in running for re-election next year if the current two-term limit were lifted. If that happens, St. Pierre said, he is leaning toward seeking another term.

Three terms make more sense than two, anyway, he said, pointing to a 2012 vote in which St. Charles residents overwhelmingly approved a three-term limit for School Board members.

The parish president’s proposed $125,000 salary was calculated by averaging the pay of the parish’s sheriff, assessor, clerk and district court judges, said Hogan, who is optimistic the increase could help make the job attractive to a wider range of candidates.

Even with the raise, the salary would be on the low end of what presidents of surrounding parishes make. In St. John the Baptist Parish, for example, Parish President Natalie Robottom is paid $143,398 annually.

Hogan said the council has discussed raising the president’s pay for years. “It’s always been low, and there’s no provision in the home rule charter to get it up to a reasonable amount that’s comparable to surrounding parishes,” he said. “The only way to really do that is to go back to the vote of the people.”

As for council members, Hogan said he spends at least two hours each day on council business, often juggling those responsibilities with a full-time work schedule at his regular job.

St. Pierre said Friday that he favors the pay increases but believes that any subsequent raise for the parish president should also be tied to an average of the other salaries.

“I think it’s a little high. They’re talking about 3.75 percent a year,” he said. “We don’t even give our own employees 3.75 percent.”

He points to the parish’s ongoing work toward building a comprehensive flood protection system on its west bank — a $500 million effort — as added motivation for him to seek another term.

“I really want to get that levee on the west bank finished,” he said. “We’ve got a good working relationship with the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). I think I can get some money to almost, in six years, be able to finish that thing.”

Of the other charter amendments to be discussed Tuesday, one would prohibit people appointed to the Parish Council to serve a partial term — for example, if a member dies or resigns — from seeking the position in a special election, or in a general election if that is less than a year away.

The final measure would allow the council to amend the parish budget on its own if all members OK the move. The council can do so now only with the parish president’s approval.

“It’s a situation … when the Parish Council feels that we need to have a project done and it wasn’t something that was put into the budget,” Hogan said. “If the parish president says no, and the council believes it’s something that is of an extreme importance to the council and this parish, and the council unanimously agrees, then we’ll amend the budget, provided that funds are available.”

Officials need to find a middle ground when setting salaries for elected positions in order to attract qualified candidates, said Brian Brox, an assistant professor of political science at Tulane University.

“They have to balance this tension between not wanting to overpay, because it’s taxpayers’ money, with the alternative of having to pay so well that you can get quality people to take the position,” he said. “A lot of citizens see this as, ‘Well, they’re just enriching themselves.’ It can go overboard and become that, but if it’s too low, then you only get the people that are willing to do this kind of work for low pay.”

Hogan, for his part, isn’t expecting much controversy over his proposals.

“They’re pretty straightforward. Nothing controversial. It’s just: Do the people agree or not agree?” he said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY .