New Orleans police officers will be among the best-paid in the state by the beginning of next year, after a pair of raises announced Friday bump up their salaries by 10 percent.
Those raises come on top of another 5 percent increase that went into effect this year.
The announcement of the new increases came as new estimates show the city is poised to reap the benefits of dramatic sales tax growth for the second year in a row, which will help swell the city’s revenue by more than $12 million this year on top of a $14.6 million surplus last year.
Mayor Mitch Landrieu, surrounded by administration officials, City Council members and Police Department brass and officers, announced the raises at a news conference, casting them as the light at the end of a long tunnel of cuts to city agencies and even furloughs for employees that were needed to bring the city budget on track in recent years.
Councilman Jason Williams said NOPD officers work in a city that is “tougher than any place in the country” and have “done it while not being paid enough for a long time.”
Last year, the city saw its sales tax revenue jump by 9 percent, on top of 9.5 percent growth in 2013. The increase in sales taxes last year — combined with other factors such as more aggressive collection of Emergency Medical Services payments by a private contractor and decreasing unemployment in the city — contributed to a $14.6 million surplus for 2014, the administration said.
That money will be put into a reserve fund, to help the city achieve the 10 percent budget cushion favored by bond rating agencies. For New Orleans, that would mean keeping about $55 million in reserve, though after emerging from years of budget problems the city has only about $17 million in those accounts.
Money for the police pay raise will come from the increase in this year’s revenue and a surplus of about $3.3 million in NOPD’s budget that stems from vacant positions.
The pay raise will be phased in over six months, with a 5 percent bump in July followed by another increase on Jan. 1. Each round will cost about $2.2 million.
After the two increases, New Orleans police recruits will make about $42,600 a year, slightly behind the figure for Louisiana State Police recruits but almost double the figure for Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office recruits, according to figures provided by the administration.
Aside from recruits, the lowest-paid officers would make almost $53,000, almost $1,000 more a year than their equivalents with State Police and $10,000 more than deputies at that level in Jefferson.
The raises are expected to be a major factor in helping the NOPD compete with other police forces in the state and give it an edge when it comes to recruiting and retaining officers. Attrition in recent years has seriously depleted the force’s strength.
With higher pay, officials hope to encourage more applicants for the department, which already is engaged in a marketing campaign to drum up recruits. Officials also have lowered the educational requirements.
“We need the citizens of this city to send us their children to join the force,” Councilman James Gray said at the news conference.
Many officials and members of the public have long blamed many of the city’s high-profile crimes on the hundreds of officers the department has lost since its peak of nearly 1,600 officers. That claim has been contested by New Orleans Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux, who has suggested that allocating officers more efficiently may be more important than the actual number.
Quatrevaux reiterated those concerns this week in a report that said the NOPD needs to provide more information on how it spends its existing budget before deciding that a larger force is the solution.
The raises must be approved by the City Council and Civil Service Commission before they can be put into effect, but representatives of both those bodies attended Landrieu’s announcement and appeared to support the plan.
While noting that the raises were a sign of the city’s fiscal health, Landrieu said New Orleans is “not out of the woods yet,” noting in particular the NOPD consent decree and the ongoing issues with the firefighters pension system as large costs that still need resolution.
Indeed, Nick Felton, president of the firefighters union, blasted Landrieu on Friday for not using some of the surplus money to help fund the pension system or cover back pay owed to firefighters.
“New Orleans firefighters agree that police deserve a raise, as all civil servants deserve to earn a living wage,” Felton said. “What we find disheartening is less than five days ago city CAO Andy Kopplin testified in court that there was no money to pay earned wages and benefits to firefighters — indeed, amounts that the city calculated and consented to in recorded judgments. Why is the city poor-mouthing one week and days later announcing pay raises?”
Felton was referring to ongoing disputes between the city and the firefighters over two court judgments — one dealing with the city’s failure to properly give firefighters raises over a number of years and the other the city’s refusal to pay adequate money into the ailing firefighters pension system for several years. Judges in both cases have ordered the city to pay up on the judgments, which combined amount to about $100 million.
Landrieu said the city is negotiating over those judgments, and administration officials said late Friday they would ask the City Council to approve $5 million toward paying off the pension obligation next week.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.