The St. Tammany Parish Council has adopted a $123.7 million operating and capital budget for 2015 after deferring a vote on it last month to iron out questions about whether to give the parish’s constables and justices of the peace their first raise in at least 15 years.
The council ultimately approved a hike in those salaries of $200 a month on Thursday — less than the officials had sought but more than some council members wanted to give them.
Overall, the budget is 3.8 percent larger than the current year’s, but Parish President Pat Brister described it as fiscally conservative in her budget message.
During several weeks of budget hearings, council members focused heavily on pay issues, notably merit raises, which they said would not be handed out across the board.
The issue of raises for constables and justices of the peace first arose late in the budget hearing process, and it continued to be contentious up until Thursday, with some council members pushing for $200 more per month and others wanting to hold the line at $100.
A compromise that would have increased the judicial officials’ pay by $150 a month was introduced at the beginning of the meeting, but ensuing debate made it clear that a majority of the council wanted to give a larger raise.
Justice of the Peace Connie Moore said a $200-a-month raise would put the St. Tammany officials in line with what a majority of justices of the peace are paid in other parts of the state. The growing population in St. Tammany has put more demands on them, she said.
The 27 justices of the peace and constables had initially sought a $300-a-month increase, according to Councilman Steve Stefancik, who chairs the Finance Committee.
Justices of the peace, who are elected to six-year terms, preside over small civil claims and tenant/landlord disputes. They also handle some criminal issues, such as littering cases. Constables carry out the orders of JP courts, serving citations and enforcing evictions.
Stefancik and others who wanted a smaller raise pointed to the problem of finding money for the raise in the general fund. While that fund had some cushion in it, which Stefancik attributed to conservative budgeting, he said he opposed dipping into reserves to fund a recurring expense.
Councilman Jake Groby noted that the parish has had to make up for sizable shortfalls in the criminal justice fund in recent years and questioned whether the additional money that would be needed for the raise would be too big a hit on the parish’s reserves.
Councilman Richard Tanner said he agreed that recurring expenses normally should not be funded out of reserves. But the need does arise from time to time, he said, and finding $50,000 to give 27 people a raise shouldn’t be a problem when the Parish Council has been willing to spend much more on lawyers to fight an oil well.
Councilman Gene Bellisario suggested that, in the future, the amount paid to justices of the peace and constables should be revisited at least every four years — once per council term.
The council amended the budget to provide the $64,800 that the raise will cost in 2015, with the money coming from $40,000 in reserves and $25,000 realized by increasing the amount of revenue anticipated from permits, which Stefancik said is in line with what the parish actually took in for that category in 2014.
But even though the council ended up providing a raise, members made it clear that they want to take a harder look at the role justices of the peace and constables play. Tanner said the council will ask the Legislature to look at the number of such officials in St. Tammany, with an eye toward creating what he called a more efficient system. The end result may be that there won’t be one such official for each ward, he said.
One potentially large expense not addressed in the budget is how much the parish will spend on its legal challenge to Helis Oil & Gas Co., which is looking to drill a fracking well on 960 acres of land near Lakeshore High School.
The council will sit down with lawyers after the first of the year to discuss plans for the lawsuit and the likely costs, Stefancik said.
The 2015 budget breaks down to nearly $110 million for operations, $71 million of which is for day-to-day costs, and nearly $14 million for capital projects. That includes work on infrastructure for the St. Tammany Advance Campus on La. 434, design work for a roundabout at the intersection of La. 59 and Koop Drive, and elevation of U.S. 11, among other projects.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.