Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Think a modest pay raise for LCG employees is good? Think again.

There is a sub-species of newspaper reader that thrives on finding the negative in otherwise positive stories. Check the comment section for this column online — they’ll be there, bloviating in all their gaseous glory.

A recent brush with our gainsaying gaggle followed a blog I assumed would be greeted with glee: “Sales taxes up; LCG pay raise proposed.” The gist of the story is that sales tax collections in Lafayette Parish have been better than projected — 5 percent better in the final seven months of fiscal year 2009-2010 (April-October 2010) than in the same period the year before — affording Lafayette Consolidated Government the means to offer a 2 percent pay raise to its 2,000 employees. (City-Parish President Joey Durel hadn’t included the raise — more or less a cost of living increase — in his budget, citing caution over revenue.)

That boost in sales tax collections, according to LCG Chief Financial Officer Becky Lalumia, is expected to generate an additional $3.6 million in revenue; the pay raise for LCG employees will cost $2 million. The City-Parish Council last week approved an introductory ordinance that will attach the pay increase to the 2010-2011 budget.

So sales taxes are up, people are spending, businesses are turning a profit, our local economy evidently is weathering the twin threats of the national recession and the drilling moratorium, and the hard-working men and women of LCG will get a modest boost in their wages. What’s not to like? (This recent uptick in retail sales doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods; if the offshore permitting process continues at its snail’s pace, we could be in for a rough road. But overall the scenario — retail sales up, a modest raise for LCG workers — is encouraging.)

Yet within minutes of the blog landing softly in the ether, the silver cloud’s dark lining came into focus.

“Government employees getting pay raises (thank you tax paying citizens) while the private sector continues to make cuts to survive,” offered one reader, evidently unaware of a recent U.S. Commerce Department report finding that American companies, collectively, turned their biggest profit ever — $1.659 trillion — in the third quarter of this year.

Another upped the ante, wondering if Durel has ulterior motives: “The state is going into the toilet, and just ’cause Lafayette is holding its own, a few dollars come in and LCG is talking raises? It sounds so fiscally irresponsible, it must be for votes.”

I posed that question to Durel last week in an email, asking if he considered it politically risky. I can imagine an algorithm in his political calculus that would make such a proposal unattractive. On the heels of a new funding model for arts/social service agencies and the down payment on the horse farm, both big Durel initiatives in 2010, and with a re-election campaign coming up next year and the political climate in Lafayette hardening, does he worry that he’ll be pegged a “big spender” get outflanked on the right by a challenger?

“I don’t make decisions based on how it will affect my election; I make decisions based on information I have available and trying to run an efficient government that positions Lafayette for a great future,” Durel replied. “I doubt that many business people would think that rewarding and retaining employees by giving a minimal pay increase — based on available funds — is being a big spender. I hear people often say that we should run government like a business. We are.”

I don’t anticipate that response being sufficient to assuage those who believe the sole function of government is to pave roads and put out fires.

The best defense of the LCG pay raise is from an LCG employee, who responded to the stream of negative comments on our website: “Its about real life, living breathing human beings who work in jobs that are geared to make your sorry life better. We’re out there digging ditches, fixing potholes, answering alarm calls when your business is burglarized, and answering the phones when your lights are out. We are not Mr. Durel or Ms. Lalumia, we are just hard working people, not politicians looking for votes or whatever. We want to be paid a living wage that feeds our families and keeps them safe. The average LCG employee makes about $15 an hour, so we’re going to have a great big ‘ole party on our whopping 30 cents an hour or $624 per year that the 2 percent will bring us. Don’t bother to RSVP, I’ll be using my money to pay toward the $1,250 a year increase in insurance premiums. So like I said, I’m grateful for whatever we are offered.”

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