Lafayette officials irked by police raise legislation

A bill this legislative session that would mandate a 2 percent annual raise for Lafayette police was criticized at Wednesday’s City-Parish Council meeting as an unfunded mandate from a Legislature that local leaders said should keep out of city affairs.

House Bill 794 , by state Reps. Joel Robideaux, R-Lafayette, and Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, would call for Police Department employees to receive a 2 percent annual raise following every year that city sales tax collections rise by at least 3 percent.

“We would prefer to deal with it locally, as opposed to having Baton Rouge tell us how it should be done,” Councilman Don Bertrand said.

Robideaux, who was unable to attend Wednesday’s council meeting, filed the bill at the request of the local police union.

He said earlier this week that he did not plan to push it if the council was not on board.

The only voices in support of the bill at a Wednesday council briefing came from police officers.

City-Parish President Joey Durel, Police Chief Jim Craft and several council members all opposed the legislation, saying they support police officers but don’t believe the Legislature should meddle in Lafayette’s budget decisions.

Lafayette police Cpl. Dorian Brabham, president of the Police Association of Lafayette, told councilmen that boosting police officer pay is critical to attracting and retaining officers.

“We do have to compete with the private sector, because the oilfield is booming,” he said.

Craft did not dispute the need for better pay for the local police force, but he said he could not support the proposed legislation.

“It needs to be addressed, but at the same time, it needs to be addressed at the local level,” the chief said.

Starting pay for Lafayette officers is $2,710 a month, a figure that has actually gone down in recent years, Brabham said.

He did not have information on how Lafayette’s starting pay ranked statewide, but he said starting pay for Lafayette officers is third in a parish where Lafayette is the largest city.

The proposed legislation would add Lafayette to a list of six other cities under a state mandate to give police officers an annual 2 percent raise — Bossier City, Lake Charles, Jennings, Monroe, Sulphur and Abbeville.

Police officers also point to a state law that mandates all firefighters in Louisiana receive an annual 2 percent raise.

That mandate has often been criticized by Durel, who said Wednesday it can be demoralizing for other city-parish employees to see firefighters get pay hikes in lean years when the budget must be cut and when no other employees see pay bumps.

“The old saying is two wrongs don’t make a right,” he said.

Durel said tying a 2 percent police raise to a 3 percent increase in sales tax collections still presents a potential problem, because if the economy takes a sharp dive and tax collections fall off 10 percent, city-parish government would be obligated to fund 2 percent annual raises while trying to slowly regain its financial footing at 3 percent a year.

“The thought that you would have to start laying off police officers to give a mandated raise is an issue for me,” he said.

Councilman Kenneth Boudreaux said that even in normal years, a 3 percent increase in sales tax collections might not boost revenues enough to cover a 2 percent raise for police while also meeting other rising expenses throughout city-parish government.

“We have an obligation to take care of everybody,” Boudreaux said.

Durel said that despite his opposition to the legislation, the debate has brought the issue of police pay to the forefront and he expects it to get serious consideration in the coming months.

“Regardless of what happens in Baton Rouge, you’ve got our attention,” Durel told a group of about a dozen police officers who attended Wednesday’s meeting.

According to figures from the City-Parish Finance Department, a 3 percent rise in sales tax collections would bring in $821,500 for the year in additional revenue that could be used for operating expenses, because only 35 percent of the total collections from the city’s share of local sales tax can be used for operating expense.

The remainder is legally restricted to capital projects.

About $284,000 of that $821,500 would go to fund the mandated 2 percent raise for firefighters, and it would cost another $421,000 for a 2 percent raise for police officers, meaning that after those raises are paid out, the city would realize only about $117,000 in additional operating revenue from the 3 percent rise in sales tax collections.