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After DPW workers put a chain on an ICE box container for removal as a Recycled Grease Trap Container waits its turn from a box culvert under Centurion Avenue, Antonio Wright, upper left, uses an excavator to extricate the item Thursday June 4, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. DPW is attempting to clear out problems from drainage areas to alleviate possible Tropical Storm Cristobal flooding.

Their weekdays usually begin around 6 a.m.

And they'll spend at least eight hours of them slogging through some of the most disgusting crevices and passageways throughout the city — in the blazing heat, no less — to temper flooding from heavy rains.

But these city-parish workers are also among the lowest paid. On average, they earn only $22,800 a year, according to an analysis of 2020 payroll data.

Low pay is one of the reasons city-parish officials say it's difficult to recruit drainage workers with the Department of Public Works. It's something Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's administration says it's trying to address as frequent flash flooding has turned a harsher light on the parish's failure-prone infrastructure.

"It's an ongoing commitment," Chief Administrative Officer Darryl Gissel said. "We know those wages have to be raised. We've had to outsource some of that work because we've had a hard time getting people."

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Staffing shortages have contributed to a backlog of approximately 6,000 service requests related to drainage in the city-parish — something the Metro Council touched upon during a recent public hearing.

Complaints to the city of Baton Rouge reporting drainage, flooding, sinkhole and erosion problems surged in May, to a new monthly high of 1,207 calls. Those calls mostly come from Tiger Bend-Jefferson (226 calls), Jones Creek (219) and Perkins-Highland (168).

That backlog comprises projects the city-parish will likely have to outsource, Gissel said. 

Council members have told the administration the public is frustrated over clogged canals and ditches. They say constituents blame those issues for much of the flash flooding that swamps parish streets, homes and businesses every time the rain falls fast and heavy.

The parish recently kicked off work on more than $20 million in new drainage projects, including channel clearing and roadside ditch work, thanks to funding from the federal government's American Rescue Plan.

Another $225 million in improvements to the parish's five major water tributaries are just getting underway.

But city-parish leaders acknowledge day-to-day upkeep and drainage maintenance present a challenge with many moving parts.

The low pay and short staffing within DPW are a noteworthy component. The parish now has about 26 unfilled vacancies within the drainage department. Funding has been earmarked for 98 positions.

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"Everyone recognizes the pay scale for civil service employees in the city-parish is lower than industry standard," said Kelvin Hill, assistant chief administrative officer for the city-parish Department of Public Works.

The starting salary for the entry-level maintenance worker is $21,200 annually and $22,945 a year for the higher-classification heavy equipment drainage positions, Hill said.

Maximum earning potential for both classifications stops at $32,066 and $38,976 a year, respectively, he added.

Hill also defends the 72 drainage employees who show up every day amid public pressure for better service. He notes that, despite the backlog of service requests, his employees have completed more than 1,400 so far this year and more than 18,400 since 2017.

That work not only includes cleaning out dirt, sediment and grass from the drainage system, but apparently ice machines and engine blocks too.

"I can't say how the material gets in there, but an ice machine doesn't walk itself into a canal and engine blocks don't grow up from the ground," Hill said. "But these are some of the most committed folks. They know they will have a rough day and they still get up, get dressed and come to work and get it done."

The administration is working on the city-parish's 2022 budget, which the mayor will likely present to the Metro Council in October.

Gissel points out that last year the city-parish raised its minimum wage for full-time employees and seasonal workers (some of whom work in the drainage department) to $10.04 an hour. He said they're still assessing revenues to determine what expenditures will look like next year and wouldn't yet commit to raises for DPW employees.

The Baton Rouge Police Department got 3% across-the-board pay bumps last year.

"We are low in salary but rich in benefits," Gissel said. "But the current workforce is not looking for long-term benefits. They want better pay."

Implementing any kind of pay increase requires a dedicated, long-term funding source to sustain it, meaning the city-parish can't utilize the windfall in federal stimulus dollars it's set to receive to up salaries.

Pay bumps are often administered through fee increases, tax hikes and by improving efficiencies, he said. The mayor-president has committed to doing the latter, he added.

"We have to do an aggressive job on recruiting workers," Gissel said.

Staff writer Missy Wilkinson contributed graphics and reporting to this story.

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