Sliding Scale

by Nathan Stubbs

Many city-parish employees will get pay raises this week that officials say are long overdue. This week’s payday is even more anticipated than usual at City Hall. When the checks go out, several employees will be seeing significant pay increases. In an effort to bring municipal employees’ salaries closer to their private sector equivalents, this year Lafayette Consolidated Government has for the first time instituted a market-based pay adjustment plan for all employees. Totaling more than $10 million in raises, the new salary adjustments are something that have been in the works for the past few years, says City-Parish President Joey Durel. “We’re trying to make a private sector pay plan work in a civil service system, and it was really difficult,” Durel says. “The motivation, for me, was obvious, and that was the fact that we were just not able to hire employees, and it got a whole lot worse and became much more evident after the hurricanes.”

Durel lists any number of examples: an entry-level engineer’s position that was recently advertised twice and drew no applicants, and veteran employees already heavily invested in the government retirement system beginning to leave for more lucrative private sector jobs. The problem is perhaps most evident just by looking at the job vacancies within the public works department and Lafayette Utilities System. This year, 13 percent of public works’ 295 authorized positions were vacant. Of LUS’ 456 positions, 14 percent were vacant.

Public Works Director Tom Carroll says public works has had the highest vacancy rate of all departments over the past two years, something that has significantly impacted its performance. The vacancies have been especially prevalent within the department’s drainage division, which has been operating with a 30 to 35 percent reduction in workforce. While public works typically would have some 11 drainage crews out working on any given day, lately Carroll is lucky to have seven. In addition, resident requests for services, such as ditch clearing, are taking significantly longer to meet. There used to be up to a three-month delay on those jobs; now it’s seven to eight months. “It’s not fun to tell people it’s going to take seven or eight months to get out there to clean a ditch,” Carroll says. “That’s just not well received.”

“With so much on our plates and so few resources with personnel,” he continues, “we really have to look and prioritize.”

Carroll wasn’t alone with labor issues. Mike Sands, the Civil Service department’s director, says the civil service board and city-parish council were having to continually approve starting level salary raises one by one in order to fill some badly needed positions. Often times, these starting level salary hikes would result in new workers making more than some of their supervisors, requiring the council to go back and approve further pay adjustments.

“The board was getting frustrated with it, and the council was getting frustrated with it,” Sands says.

He points out that the civil service department has recommended developing a market-based pay plan each year, but that this is the first time city-parish government has given the green light. He credits the Durel administration with having the political fortitude and public trust required to take the issue on.

While not all employees may be getting as large a raise as they’d like, the plan has enjoyed widespread support from both the council and the department heads within LCG.

“Even this [plan],” Durel says, “where many people that work here will get the biggest [salary] increase they’ve seen in their career, you still have some people that are unhappy.”

“But this [pay plan] is scientific,” he adds. “It’s based on the market.”

The analysis and salary re-allignments were all done in-house by the civil service department.

The department already had free access to information on local professional salaries from reputable surveying companies (Lafayette had participated as a comparison city in surveys done for other municipalities). Sands’ department took that data and developed new pay ranges for LCG workers tied to experience and performance.

The analysis showed that of LCG’s 1,500 employees, only 200 had salaries above their private sector counterparts. LCG moved 1,300 employees into higher pay ranges. The raises range from 4 percent to more than 50 percent of employees’ previous salaries, with the average raise approximately 15 percent. Sands plans to update the analysis next year with new labor market data. “If the current economic situation holds up,” he says. “Next year we may well go to [the administration] and say all these pay ranges are too high; we need to hold down our salary increases.”

In addition, Durel and Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley took an across-the-board look at the salaries for department directors — those non-civil service positions — and awarded raises that were all under the 15 percent average. Durel is taking a 5 percent raise. By charter, he has the option of taking up to a 10 percent increase in salary over the course of each four-year term in office.

Several of the largest pay increases come to those workers on the lower end of the pay scale. Sands notes that these increases are also keeping with recent minimum wage increases (on July 1, 2009, minimum wage will go up to $7.25 an hour). Under its previous pay plan, some LCG laborers and clerks were making under that amount. For example, the new plan increases a receptionist’s or clerk’s pay to $11.19 an hour (up from $7.05) and a basic laborer like a grass cutter (called a Laborer I) to $9.82 an hour (up from $7.51).

Emergency responders in the local marshal’s office and the police and fire departments are also seeing salary increases.

Durel says LCG’s recent labor analysis and pay adjustments are further validation of Lafayette’s strong economy and job market.

“We’ve consistently been among the lowest unemployment rates in the state,” he says. “You have to compete, and while we’re not going to be paying people the same amount of money that they might be able to make in the private sector, at least we’ve gotten the gap to where it’s a whole lot more reasonable.”