Council, mayor raises pass on split votes

By: GEOFFREY STOUTE
MORGAN CITY — After nearly an hour of discussion by both citizens and the public, proposed pay raises for the next mayor and city council passed on 3-1 and 3-2 votes, respectively, the second on a gridlock vote that had to be broken by Mayor Tim Matte because Councilman Luke Manfre was absent and couldn’t cast the swing vote to break the tie.

The votes were made following comments from Morgan City residents Gene Nezat and Max Thibodeaux, who both opposed the salary increase effective as early as when the next administration takes office in January 2013. Elections for the new mayor and council will be held this fall.

Because Matte is term-limited, he must sit out an election cycle before he can run again, but council members have no term limits.

While the proposal was to increase the council salary from $7,200 to $12,000 annually, the council agreed with a recommendation by Councilman Lou Tamporello to slice that increase from $12,000 per year to $9,600 per year, while the mayor’s salary will remain at the proposed increase from $54,000 to $63,000 per year.

Councilman Tim Hymel, in offering a motion to adopt the mayor’s salary, said that he thinks the mayor’s responsibility in running the city is a fulltime position when looking at the responsibility it entails, such as managing a budget and directing employees.

“In all honestly, I don’t know if 63 (thousand)’s enough to run a city,” said Hymel, who is Matte’s brother-in-law. “You talk about economic times. It may get worse, and the worse it gets, you might say ‘how can you justify a raise?’ The worse it gets, it’s going to be a lot harder to be a mayor, also. Based on that, I’m willing to vote for a mayor’s raise.”

Tamporello offered a second and Councilman Ron Bias also voted for it.

While Bias was voting for the mayor’s raise, he noted before offering his vote that 85 percent of his salary as a councilman goes to helping the people of his district — which he said is the poorest in the city — pay for groceries and utility bills.

While Bias said he understands the economy is in a downturn, he still said it would be a good idea to attract someone to the position so they won’t have to have a second job.

He also agreed that $63,000 is not enough for a mayor.

“Mayor, does that buy enough Tylenol?” Bias asked Matte.

Before the vote, Matte, when accused by Thibodeaux of likely sitting out four years before running again, said he probably wouldn’t run again for mayor.

“I’d be this close to saying that I will never run except that you shouldn’t say never, because you never know what happens,” he said.

During the council vote, Tamporello offered a motion proposing a salary of $9,600 per year, allowing the rest of the council to do what they wish with his motion.

Bias offered a second, and Tamporello and Bias voted for it, while Councilman Larry Bergeron and Hymel opposed it.

Because Manfre was not there to break the tie, as per city law, Matte was the presiding officer and voted in his place. The mayor cast a vote in favor of the raise.

Manfre could not be reached for comment this morning, but Matte said he was out of town last night, and Manfre’s daughter confirmed the councilman was out of town at his cabin in Arkansas.

During the public comment period prior to the vote, Nezat told the mayor and council, “I’m not a rude person, but I just want y’all to open y’all eyes. Don’t vote y’all self a raise.”

Nezat, who lives in Auburn Subdivision near Manfre, added that numerous requests in the past for action in his subdivision have not been answered.

While he said some councilmen deserve the raise, he said others didn’t, not naming any names but apparently referencing Manfre.

Thibodeaux read an approximately seven-minute prepared statement in which he said the mayor and council has not done enough to promote economic development in the city to deserve a raise.

“Many citizens believe that our city government isn’t working,” Thibodeaux read from his statement. “The decades of a long suffering economy is a serious source of concern and frustration. Approving a salary increase for the mayor and council, regardless of the effect that it will not officially take effect until 2013, amounts to nothing more than a sham that is a pretty heavy expense on the taxpayers of the city, and it will get even heavier as we continue to lose residents and businesses to more prosperous communities with visionary and progressive leadership while the costs for city services continue to rise for those of us who remain here.

“The city’s economy is broken,” he added. “You’d have to be blind not to see it and deaf not to hear about it. Now is not the time to increase the salary of non-productive, city officials who lack accountability and have shown no interest in pursing opportunities for economic growth and development.”

Thibodeaux said he was not against the idea of a raise, but rather, he was against the idea of potentially giving it to a council who he said has not done enough to deserve it.

Matte said this morning that despite accusations that the 0.3 percent sales tax for road improvements is linked to the pay raise, it is in no way related.

Voters passed the street tax on Nov. 19, and the proposed pay increase appeared on the council’s agenda for its November meeting, held three days later.

Matte said that all the road funds for the tax are dedicated to road improvements. He said while on occasion general fund monies were put in the road royalty fund if they were not dedicated for other purposes, there is no plan to do so with any of these bonded monies from the recent election.

When asked why he decided to bring the tax before the council at the meeting immediately after the election instead of anytime earlier this year when it could have been passed, Matte said he didn’t think about it until the end of this year.

During his speech, Thibodeaux also accused Matte of providing part-time service to both his job with his CPA firm, Pitts and Matte, as well as his job as mayor; and said at least half the mayor’s salaries from all of his terms in office should be returned to the city’s general fund.

“Simply put, the taxpayers of this city should not be enhancing and advancing the mayor’s standard of living with a full-time salary for part-time service and bystander leadership,” Thibodaux said.

Matte disagreed with Thibodeaux’s statements about his hours worked.

“I think this mayor and council have worked extremely hard,” he said. “I think we have put in the time. I think we have put in the hours. I will challenge the hours that Mr. Thibodeaux reported as far as what I put in here. I think it’s a fulltime effort, regardless of what the pay is, regardless of its impact. The citizens of this community come first. The time behind the desk at City Hall does not come close to reflecting the effort that is put forward. Much of that activity takes place elsewhere.”

Matte said he and the council had received a petition with 19 signatures in opposition to the pay raises for the mayor and council.

“I’ve had two opportunities at this table to propose a salary increase that would have benefited me, and I’ve chosen not to do that,” he said. “I’ve chosen not to do that because I think it’s fine as far as the compensation of myself, and I considered it a real privilege and honor to serve this community and have done so at the salaries as provided. (There is) no question, no concerns over that. That’s not the issue.

“Believe me this is not a politically favorable issue to take up,” Matte added. “It’s one that I saw as an obligation, because this is the last opportunity. If the salaries are not adjusted at this time, it won’t be until (the term beginning) 2017 until this issue can be addressed again.”

During his remarks, Matte also recognized that some employees are underpaid and said there are circumstances sometimes “that are just dealt,” explaining, for example, for firemen or police that if the pay is increased for one, it has to be increased for all of them.

“I think I’ve put their interests also at the top, because believe me, nothing would happen without their cooperation, their efforts,” Matte said of the city’s employees. “I think when city finances have been sustainable where I’ve been able to recognize there is enough money in the budget to be able to give raises, we have given raises.”

He said the only reason he would have liked to see the mayor and council’s salaries raised is to not make these offices a detriment to anyone running for them.

In another response to a Thibodeaux accusation, Matte said the city has worked hard to keep the cost of doing business and living in the city as low as possible, adding that rate increases have been minimal and rates still are cheaper than a lot of other communities.

While Matte said he understood the community’s concerns that a lot of people are struggling, he and Tamporello both noted that just because the raise is scheduled, by law, for implementation as early as January 2013, that doesn’t mean it will be.

This coming year, the current council can choose whether to keep the salary in place, while when the new slate of officials take office in 2013, they can decide whether to raise its salary to the agreed upon amount with the passage of Tuesday’s council votes.

“Can the city afford the pay raise?” Matte asked rhetorically today. “We won’t know that until next year.”

Matte also disagreed with Thibodeaux’s claims about a lack of economic development in the city.

Although Matte said he is not taking credit for it or said it was a result of any direct council action, he said the city has created a pro-business atmosphere.

“We’ve had $98 million worth of construction over the past seven years in this community, and I would venture to say that might even be unprecedented,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of businesses that have chosen to locate here. We’ve had a lot of businesses that have chosen to expand here, and they’ve expanded their hiring in doing so. They’ve expanded their capabilities and many of them have done pretty well.”

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