My column obviously does not bear the title “Follow the Money,” the name of our publisher’s weekly commentary. This week, however, an issue involving the Livingston Parish Council clearly boils down to money.
Livingston Parish Councilman Maurice “Scooter” Keen, who represents District 3, withdrew an agenda item from the Feb. 23 meeting which most colleagues probably would not care to discuss: Pay hikes.
He said last week the timing was not correct, which was a wise decision in light of the ongoing flood recovery throughout the parish.
Livingston Parish Council members receive $1,200 per month for their services.
By comparison, Ascension, Iberville, St. Helena, Pointe Coupee, West Baton Rouge and Tangipahoa Parish Council members earn $1,600 per month. In East Baton Rouge Parish, Metro Council members make $1,000 per month, but also receive an $800 stipend for auto expenses.
Council members have not received a merit increase since 2004. Former Councilman Joan Landry brought up a pay hike in 2014, but the backlash forced her to withdraw the proposal.
Keep in mind the pay hike would not take effect until the next council takes office in 2020, in accordance to stipulations in the parish’s Home Rule Charter, which prohibit council members from voting themselves pay increases.
Keen was not necessarily asking for extra cash now. In fact, he said as a successful businessman he does not need the money. In his case, he said he wanted to ensure the position would attract quality candidates.
What the parish’s fiscal condition will look like by 2020 is something only the good Lord or a very capable psychic can foresee.
In this case, it would help the council attract qualified candidates for what is an extra 40-hour a week job – sometimes even longer.
Let’s shift to a personal tangent for a moment. I grew up in Plaquemine, where my father served 20 years on the Plaquemine Board of Selectmen.
On a given week, he’d come home around 6 p.m. from a 12-hour day on shift work at Georgia-Gulf. He’d walk into the house, quickly clean up and change shirts and head off to the bi-weekly meeting.
Some meetings would last an hour, others stretched three hours or more.
The work did not stop there. I can remember many instances when he’d get a call in the wee hours of the night or morning to check on a water issue, a fallen tree limb or even a cable outage (even though it certainly was not the city’s domain).
I also recall the bitterly cold Christmas of 1983 when pipes busted at homes, and residents would call out for help. He missed out on a lot of the celebration that year, but it was the nature of the beast.
The same applies in any community large or small. As it is the case with a reporter, public service is in the blood.
The current compensation of $1,200 per month may seem like a lot of money to some people. It helps pay the bills, perhaps, but it’s not really much in the grand scheme of things.
It’s probably what goes through the minds of many when they toss around the notion of entering a life in public service. The job is not listed as full-time employment, but the hours a truly dedicated public figure logs over the course of a week easily exceeds 40 hours.
Here’s where I put my math skills to work: It comes down to $7.50 per hour, roughly the same compensation at fast-food eateries.
The thought of a pay increase for public officials often grates on constituents, some who believe the officeholder should do the work for free.
Unfortunately, it removes many qualified candidates from an election, particularly if they know most neighboring parishes pay their council members the maximum the Legislature allows.
Livingston Parish ranks as one of the fastest growing areas not only in Louisiana, but the entire Southeast corridor.
The future will require some huge decisions, which would best suit public servants with a keen insight on how to address growth. It mandates people who can bring to the table an educated and experienced approach – qualities which do not come for free.
Pay does not guarantee the quality of a public servant, but it helps make the work seem more worthwhile. Council members faced challenging issues before the flood, and the tasks have become steeper since the August disaster.
Keen made the right move to delay discussion on the pay hike, but it’s an issue which deserves strong consideration once Livingston Parish moves closer to normality.
It takes good minds to run government. Ultimately, the ability to draw the right people for the job comes down to dollars and cents.