WALKER — In an effort to deal with problems related to growth and those inherited from past administrations, the City Council passed ordinances and resolutions Monday night focused on issues ranging from engineering to personnel.
The Council also broke for executive session towards the end of the meeting to discuss a retirement fund issue at the Walker Police Department involving four women who were not getting compensated correctly, according to Mayor Rick Ramsey.
“We have four ladies in the police department that should have been eligible for the municipal police retirement system, but had never been informed that they were,” Ramsey said. “As a result, we’re making an offer to pay our share back three years to help them get in the system.”
The Municipal Police Employees’ Retirement System (MPERS) had existed in Walker since 1997, and although the four employees had not been there that long, City Attorney Irys Allgood advised the city to meet its legal requirement of three years.
“We righted the wrong of several past administrations,” said Ramsey. “They have been eligible for the program since 1997. They haven’t been here that long, but they’ve been here more than three years.”
According to Ramsey the settlement will cost Walker roughly $80,000, and the employees have been added to the MPERS program since July 1. It could have been more, but the city had already been contributing to their 401k, which was subtracted from the total settlement contribution.
“We are contributing the employers’ share, minus the 401k contribution,” said Ramsey. “Our share of the settlement will be offset by the 9 percent contribution to 401k.”
When asked how the city found out about the situation, Ramsey stated that the employees came to his office and asked him to fix the situation. According to Ramsey, they had asked previous administrators before but had been denied.
Ramsey did not know why, and declined to speculate.
After breaking from executive session, Walker unanimously passed an amendment to their budget, moving the $80,000 from their “rainy day fund” to their general fund to pay off the settlement.
During the executive session, residents had a chance to view DOTD maps on the courthouse walls that showed speculative results from their study of La. Highway 447. The map showed the area from La. Highway 16 at Port Vincent to Burgess Avenue and 447.
When asked, Ramsey said that DOTD put together a plan through 2030, taking into consideration population growth in the area and estimated the traffic count and what they could do to help alleviate or eliminate those problems. DOTD proposed, when funding is available, to widen 447 to Port Vincent to three lanes; to eventually widen the overpass at I-12 and 447; to add modified clover-leafs at I-12 to help traffic avoid roundabouts to get on the interstate, and to add 10 roundabouts from Buddy Ellis Road to Burgess Lane.
“It’s ambitious, but it might be 20 years because it will happen as money is available,” Ramsey said. “They said that money is available for the roundabouts at the interstate in 2014.”
According to Ramsey, that money is part of a federal traffic alleviation program, however he believes the money could be better spent.
“I have my reservations,” said Ramsey, “but I have met with DOTD numerous times and told them that 447 at the overpass should be widened before anything else, because that’s where our congestion is.”
“We have traffic backing up three miles on 447. It takes 3-4 light cycles sometimes to get off the interstate,” he added.
Ramsey said that talks with DOTD are ongoing, but as money comes available DOTD will be signing contracts to begin projects. He is unsure what will come first at this point.
The Council also approved two engineering contracts. One with Alvin Fairburn and Associates (AFA) for roughly $86,500 includes re-design and relocation of sewer lines from Lift Stations 4 and 5 to the wastewater treatment plant.
According to Chief of Staff Fred Raiford, $39,000 of the total figure goes to design costs alone, the rest is extraneous costs for the project including supplies and labor. Raiford said that the property, on Fletcher Avenue, had already been purchased and that the Council simply needed to pass the ordinance for the project to begin.
“We are looking at our needs now and in the future, and this will greatly enhance our abilities at the plant and in the lines,” Raiford said. “Every time it rains, it’s starting to feel like Baton Rouge here where backed up sewer water can just flow into homes.”
Ramsey agreed that the project was needed, and said that it was already in the 2013 budget, the only change to the ordinance was the firm to be used.
“We went with a local firm due to the cost of bringing in someone from the outside,” Ramsey said. “AFA would be a company that would do a good job, and they fall within original budget.”
The council passed the resolution unanimously.
The other engineering project, also passed unanimously, is for professional services from the SJB Group of Baton Rouge. The fees will be roughly $10,000, according to Raiford, and he believes that Larry Williams, superintendent of Walker’s gas lines, needs the help.
“From time to time, as good as Larry is, some things are above him,” Raiford said. “SJB group has been very helpful to Larry, especially Eden Church Crossing; when he needs technical support, they’re able to bring it to him.”
Raiford believes that not all of the $10,000 will be spent, but said that there are currently four items on his agenda that request “advisory help”. Ramsey added that the funds were already budgeted for the project, and that SJB Group has done good work for the city. SJB performed the study on Walker’s gas lines and gave the city suggestions and guidance on adjusting their gas rates.
Following that news, the city presented a bittersweet service award to Billy Keller, who worked in Walker’s gas department. Ramsey said Keller had to leave work in January of 2013 due to health issues, and would not be able to return full time.
According to Ramsey, and Raiford, Keller was an invaluable wealth of knowledge, and if they can bring him part time on projects, they will.
“He’ll be paid of course,” Ramsey said, “but he was here when the majority of gas lines were laid for the City of Walker; so when they say he knows where every valve, every regulator, every line is, he does because he was here when they were installed and he has a photographic memory.”
The Council also amended its recently adopted City Handbook regarding part time employees. Ramsey said new federal regulations stringently look at employees at any government level to make sure cities are not taking advantage of part-time employees.
“It’s just with the change in federal policy, whether its 25 hours is part time, 30 hours means a part time, 35 hours is part time — this is a definition issue for us,” Ramsey said. “It’s basically defining that we can hire an employee that’s not a permanent employee that can work up to 40 hours a week.”
“It’s an issue of benefit, it’s important, we want to make sure they’re fit to work for the city,” he added.
According to Ramsey, this is not a plan to avoid paying employee benefits. They will be allowed to work one 90 day term. At the end of that term, it will be determined if they will work 90 more days at that capacity, be cut loose, or hired full time. At the end of the second 90 day period, they will either be cut loose, or hired on full time.
According to Ramsey, employees hired at this capacity could work in any facet of the Walker City Government, from labor to clerical, and they will work no longer than 40 hours a week. The council passed the amendment unanimously.