Maureen O'Brien.jpg

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO—Maureen O'Brien

What began as an effort to increase the salaries of St. Tammany Parish's lowest-paid public employees morphed into an across-the-board 2 percent cost-of-living raise that the Parish Council adopted 12-1 Thursday night.

Councilwoman Maureen O'Brien cast the lone no vote, saying her opposition was based on principle.

O'Brien said she could not support a raise that will go to all employees, including those who earn six figures. She pointed to three failed attempts to renew sales taxes for operating the parish jail and courthouse, which were presented to voters as critical needs, and said they show St. Tammany voters want smaller and less expensive government.

Earlier in the meeting, the council adopted a resolution authorizing Parish President Pat Brister to sign an intergovernmental agreement with the Sheriff's Office to provide $5.6 million to operate the jail.

O'Brien said many St. Tammany residents have not seen their income grow in recent years, giving the example of a woman in her district who earns $50,000 a year in a professional job but hasn't received a raise in five years.

Council Chairman Mike Lorino argued, however, that parish employees are taking on more work because of staff cutbacks caused by the lost tax revenue. He also noted that most of the $500,000 needed for the raises is not coming from the parish's strapped general fund but from other dedicated funding sources.

Councilman Gene Bellisario agreed, saying that employees are working more hours and taking on more tasks. "I feel comfortable supporting it," he said.

Councilman Steve Stefancik pointed out that no employees received a raise last year. He also told O'Brien that the council's decision to budget the money doesn't mean that highly paid employees will get a raise — that's up to the administration, he said, adding that no one is receiving a merit pay raise.

But Brister made it clear that she intends for everyone to get the increase.

The parish has 430 employees, she said, and only about 20 fall into the category of high earners that O'Brien cited. "It's a matter of principle for me," Brister said, echoing O'Brien's earlier comment.

Brister said that top staffers have been working harder and longer hours, coming to meetings at the request of Parish Council members and recently working on a holiday weekend when there was a flood threat.

"They are on call 24/7," Brister said. "They deserve a 2 percent cost-of-living raise."

Parish Council members, who earn about $29,000 a year, will also get the raise. An ordinance adopted in 2014 specifies that their salary goes up on Jan. 1 by the average percentage increase of all government employees for that year.

The council tried to ensure that its members will not gain personally from the raise by adding a resolution to the agenda that called for their increase to be donated to a charity of their choice through a payroll deduction.

But that idea ran into legal problems because the parish can't give away public money, and the motion was withdrawn. Councilman Jake Groby said after the meeting that council members would have to donate the extra money to charities on their own after getting paid.

Apparently, no one suggested giving the money back to the parish.

But O'Brien was still shaking her head after the meeting. "Last year, we were talking about canceling Christmas," she said, referring to a short-lived decision to cancel a holiday light display after the second failure to extend the two taxes.


Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.