One council member unhappy, another defends 1.3% COLA raise for Ascension employees

AP Government has been more generous in Cost of Living raises than other entities, by a lot.

At the most recent meeting of Ascension’s Council it was announced that parish employees would be given an “across the board” 1.3% Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) raise by year’s end, with a second, merit-based increase in 2021.  The latter will be forthcoming after performance evaluations, the first conducted since 2015, are completed.  President Clint Cointment’s announcement was met with hyper-critical resistance by his most vocal council critic, countered by a supporting voice while nine council members stayed out of the fray.

“1.3%, to the average worker, I would think, is very little.  They deserve much more than the 1.3%,” opined Councilman Alvin “Coach” Thomas whose inability to grasp that COLA raises have nothing to do with merit should concern his constituency.  “They really, really work hard and there’s nothing that we are giving them.  They earned that raise,” he doubled down.

In November 2019 the former council adopted a budget that included a 5% COLA raise, but extraordinary overtime payments necessitated by several named storms and COVID-19 expenses ate into the budget appropriation.  That is according to the Cointment administration which also noted an expected downturn in tax revenue collection.  Still, the 1.3% increase is competitive with other parish governmental entities, the School Board and Sheriff’s Office in particular.

For an old school Ascension Parish politico like Thomas, competitiveness with other government entities is anathema.  After all, he’s the guy who showed up to excuse former parish president Kenny Matassa when a former council considered a “No Confidence” vote on March 16, 2017.  Matassa had just been charged with Election Bribery by a grand jury indictment.

March 16, 2017: Citizen Alvin Thomas showed up to defend Matassa’s alleged bribery of a candidate for Gonzales City Council. When it comes to bribery, Alvin Thomas should know having been convicted of the charge during his first stint on the parish council.

Ascension Parish Government has a long history of doling out bigger raises than its more frugal contemporaries.  Pure political patronage has been the rule in parish government for quite some time, a practice which candidate Clint Cointment ran against…twice.  Need convincing?

Since 2010 salaries have increased by a cumulative 33% due to yearly COLA raises doled out by APG while the Consumer Price Index (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) has risen by 18%. (See graph at top of page, provided to every council member by the administration).  APG salary increases have tripled those given by St. Charles Parish Government; also tripling pay bumps offered by Ascension’s Sheriff and School Board over the last decade.

None of which placated a surly west bank council member.

“In spite of the COVID, the stuff that’s going on with the pandemum(?) and things that’s working out, I still feel like they deserve it; they need it,” Councilman Thomas’s spectacular display of ignorance continued unabated.  “People are hurting right now; people are losing their jobs and there’s just so much going on.  I’m not sure what all went into giving them the 1.3% but, again, I disagree with that.

Unsurprising since his Donaldsonville district pays a comparatively paltry amount into the parish coffers compared to every other area of Ascension outside the town limits of Sorrento, Prairieville taxpayers shouldering the heaviest part of the load.  Past parish presidents, Matassa more than Tommy Martinez, hired a disproportionate number of employees from the west bank compared to its share of the population.

Are skyrocketing Personnel Costs sustainable?  Red line indicates salary, including recipients who do not work directly for parish government (like firemen in Prairieville).  Blue line is cumulative amount including benefits (insurance, retirement, etc.)

President Cointment, who campaigned on Accountability, Transparency, Responsibility, has warned that skyrocketing personnel costs (depicted on the graph above) are unsustainable over the long haul.  Spiking health insurance costs and burdensome retirement obligations will strain the parish’s ability to keep pace if more frugal measures are not undertaken, Cointment insists.

“Every tax dollar spent on payroll or benefits is one that cannot be invested in the ground to build capital projects, maintain existing assets and provide the level of services our citizens should expect from parish government,” asserted President Cointment.

In 2011, the last year of Tommy Martinez’s penultimate term in the parish presidency, total Personnel Costs were $19,862,279 ($14,584,155 in salary-73.4% of the total).  Martinez would present five budgets for council approval after his October 22, 2011 reelection to a fourth term in office, each one padding employee salaries and overall costs.  Personnel Costs were $26,187,439 by 2016, a cumulative 26.6% increase over five years (average annual increase of 5.3%).  Aggregate salary for parish employees rose to $19,429,001 for the 2016 budget, a 27.4% increase from 2011 (5.5% per year).

Four years of a Kenny Matassa presidency and the public dole grew even bigger…and faster.  Personnel Costs rose to $36,826,900 in his 2020 budget, approved by the former council in November 2019, a 32.7% spike (8.2% growth per year).  That 2019 council approved a budget which included $26,463,500 in pure salary, a 26.6% increase (6.5% annual increase on average).  Knowing he would not seek reelection, Matassa really padded the pockets of his pals; resulting in a 11.5% spike in Personnel Costs, an 11% salary boost in the 2019 budget (adopted in November 2018).

Not coincidentally, budgets proposed in election years (2011/2015/2019) tended to see larger annual percentage growth in Personnel Costs (8.9%/10.4%/6.4%) and salary increases (8.5%/11.8%/5.8%).

As Chief Administrative Officer John Diez framed the argument in October, “We need to decide if we’re going to be a job service; or we’re going to provide services to the public.”  Without a doubt, Councilman Alvin “Coach” Thomas views parish government as the former, a view shared by certain of his colleagues, no doubt.

One who does not, and had the gumption to say so is Councilman Chase Melancon of St. Amant.

“With the COVID pandemic thousands upon thousands of Ascension Parish citizens have either lost their jobs, had decreased salary or been furloughed for a certain amount of time.  These residents are the ones who pay the taxes that pay our parish employees.  Thousands of people whose salaries have been cut or taken away completely,” he pondered the implications, noting that his own salary took a significant hit.

District 6 Councilman Chase Melancon

“A 1.3% raise in this kind of economy is on the side of generous and not anything less than they deserve,” Councilman Melancon concluded.