Promises, Promises 

During a tough budget season, the City Council debates a salary increase for city staff.

Several months ago, citing the example of FedEx, the company I work for enacted an 8 percent pay cut for many of the full-time employees.

Not that I'm complaining, mind you. Times are tough, and if it's a choice between having a job, but getting paid less, and not having one, I think the choice is clear.

But, knowing all that, you're going to have to forgive me if I think a 3 percent raise for city employees is ridiculous. Especially on top of the 5 percent raise they got last year.

Facing a $57 million shortfall and a possible 53-cent property tax hike, the council continued its operating budget hearings this week. After asking the mayor to cut $50 million from the budget and getting back a budget that closed swimming pools, libraries, and golf courses, the council has taken matters into its own hands, chiseling away at the difference with a few thousand here and a few thousand there. But, to paraphrase council member Jim Strickland, it's hard to believe that some of the members are serious about cutting the budget.

During the hearing on the Riverfront Development Corporation's budget, council members discussed cuts to the 35-person entity. Under its initial funding, the RDC, which manages Mud Island and Tom Lee Park, was supposed to be self-sufficient by 2010.

After Councilman Shea Flinn suggested cutting $15,000 from the RDC's travel budget, other council members argued that RDC staffers needed to travel because of their overall mission.

"I'm not in favor of taking this from the RDC," said Janis Fullilove. "It takes almost $1,000 to get to New Orleans. I understand my colleagues wanting to be frugal, but at the same time, a corporation such as this is trying to enhance our city. Maybe they should cut something else, like landscape services."

Forgetting the fact that landscape services are pretty much all the RDC does, a roundtrip ticket from Memphis to New Orleans costs $148 on Amtrak and $285 on Delta.

The council is also finding it difficult to come to a consensus about the staff's 3 percent raise.

The police department is a huge division, and I would argue one of the city's most important. Roughly 91 percent of the police budget comes from personnel costs.

The administration's proposed budget for police included reductions in communications, clerical support, and service technicians. Director Larry Godwin said those proposed cuts would have a negative impact, both on 911 call-response time and crime.

"I must tell you it will be an increase in crime, and it will be an increase in crime at a rapid rate," he said.

But if the council cut the 3 percent raise, they would save $6 million from the police department alone and $11 million in all. It doesn't solve the problem, but it would go a long way in helping to fix it.

"Under the proposed cut, it would take five minutes to answer 911 calls while at the same time giving employees a 3 percent raise," Strickland said.

"We spent 15 minutes talking about cutting $15,000, and you'd think that was the most devastating cut the RDC ever had. ... We have to get serious about this. We need to eliminate the 3 percent raise."

Godwin offered to give up his raise but told council members that his employees were counting on the salary increase. Some of the council agreed.

"[City employees] are expecting this 3 percent raise and to take it away from them is reprehensible," Fullilove said.

Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware reminded other members that they cut taxes last year when they didn't have to.

"The employees are depending on [the raise]. It was negotiated. They may not quit doing their jobs, but you're creating a serious morale problem when you promise somebody something and then you don't do it," Ware said. "We said when times were better, we would give increases, and that's what we did. When we did not give increases, those other people you're talking about out there were getting increases."

Well, you know, things change. One of the main lessons of private businesses today is that you have to be nimble if you're going to survive.

I would love for city employees to get a raise. But with everyone else tightening their belts, it just doesn't seem like the right time.

"City government is here to provide services, not employment," Strickland said. "We have to keep our customers in mind. We have to treat our employees correctly, but the customers come first."

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