Terrebonne approves pay raises for officials

Terrebonne Parish constables and justices of the peace are set to receive a significant boost in their pay.

At last Wednesday’s parish council meeting, the council approved raising the pay for the two elected positions to $800 a month, an 88 percent increase on the current monthly pay of $425. For Ward 10 Constable Dale Theriot, the raise is a long time coming.

“I been at this job for 27 years. When things were good, when things were bad. I never left for a hurricane. I was with the police department, sleeping with them, when the tin was coming off the civic center. I never left,” Theriot said.

The approval came after more than an hour of heated debate among council members that ultimately dragged Parish President Gordon Dove into the verbal fracas. The debate centered on the parish’s current financial position but eventually devolved into attacks on specific council members’ politics. The council ultimately approved the vote 6-2-1, with Darrin Guidry and Gerald Michel voting no and Christa Duplantis-Prather abstaining.

Duplantis-Prather said she abstained because while she supported the constables and justices receiving raises, she could not approve a raise for only them while the rest of the parish’s first responders went without raises in this year’s budget. Guidry and Michel both spoke against the raises in the name of fiscal conservatism, saying the parish should not continue to spend in light of weak sales tax revenues.

Guidry said his issue with approving the raise came down to the process. He said the if the council wanted to give the constables the raise, they should have included it when drafting and approving the 2017 budget. Guidry said he did not want Terrebonne to already start eating into its general fund balance one month into the year with the raise, which would cost the parish more than $94,000 after increasing fringe benefits and mileage reimbursement. Guidry mentioned the freeze on hiring and raises for parish employees, instituted in April 2016 by Dove, as justification for not approving the constable and justice raises.

“What do we tell the thousand or so full and part-time employees of Terrebonne Parish – many of whom, because we have a hiring freeze right now, are doing the job of two people,” Darrin Guidry said. “Yet they’re not getting raises here, they’re working even harder. By adjusting this year’s budget, what do we tell these people?”

Council Member Arlanda Williams expressed strong support for the measure and said Dove and his administration’s effective handling of the parish budget means the parish is in a position to afford the raises. Williams praised constables’ day-to-day work as well as their roles in times of crisis while advocating for their pay increase.

“I hope the rest of the council supports this, because if not, when it comes down to hurricanes, when it comes down to all the other catastrophic events in this parish, you’re going to find out why you need constables and why we have to continue to support them,” Williams said.

Michel joined Guidry in keeping the parish’s purse strings tight at this time. He admitted to not knowing exactly what the constables and justices of the peace do and requested more contact with them and better logging of their work to get a better understanding. Michel pointed to the fees constables and justices receive, many through serving eviction notices, as a means to increasing their pay without adding to the parish budget. According to Michel, the parish could reconsider the raises when it was in a better financial position.

“If the economy gets better, that’s a different story. Maybe we can look at it again, and maybe we can learn more about what they’re doing. But to blindly vote on this – and I believe that’s what it is, it’s a blind vote – is irresponsible, and I will not vote for it,” Michel said.

Council Member Steve Trosclair spoke about the impact constables have on his district in the southern part of the parish while supporting the raise. Trosclair said the constables provide vital support for South Terrebonne, where only one Terrebonne Parish Sheriff’s Office deputy is patrolling multiple bayous. Trosclair said the constables provide a support system to help law enforcement be more proactive in the spread-out areas in his district.

“Do we need them? Yes we need them. Is $800 a justifiable raise? I think not; I think it should be more,” Trosclair said.

Dove eventually spoke on the issue, jumping into a heated defense of his administration. He said the parish’s financial situation is solid, noting its general fund balance was up to $6.9 million at the time of the council meeting. He also said Chief Financial Officer Kandace Mauldin has assured him the parish is in a position to afford the raises without threatening its ability to provide services.

“Y’all sit here and use the police department as the reason [to not approve the raise]. Look these guys in the eyes and just tell them you don’t want to give them a raise,” Dove said.

Both Dove and Council Member Al Marmande attacked Michel in particular, once again bringing up his April 2016 public letter to Gov. John Bel Edwards alleging the proposed closure of Leonard J. Chabert Medical Center was political payback for Terrebonne not supporting him in the election. Marmande said he personally met with Edwards and saw that the governor had vetoed all state projects in Terrebonne in response to the letter, only for cajoling from parish officials, state representatives and senators to get most of the projects back in the state’s budget. They noted an $8 million dredging of Bayou Terrebonne, in Michel’s district, was not put back in, and chalked it up to his letter. Michel disagreed, saying the project was nixed because of the state’s tenuous budget situation.

“Bayou Terrebonne didn’t get dredged because the state doesn’t have the money for all the projects. We’re lucky they did some. If they couldn’t do it, that’s fine, and I accept that and I believe the people in my district will accept that,” Michel said. “But the bottom line is they don’t have enough money to do everything, and neither do we. And that is the position I’m taking when I vote against this, not because I don’t think they deserve it, but because we don’t have the money for this and for the dozens of other things that are going to follow this.”

Guidry wished to keep the discussion away from a series of personal attacks on each other’s views or competency. He expected the constable raise to pass and said “it won’t be the end of the world” when it did. He instead said his dissenting vote was simply a matter of disagreement on policy.

“It’s not about any personalities up here. I understand what my colleagues are doing, and I don’t have any problems with that. We have a philosophical difference when it comes to the budget,” Guidry said. ∙

Terrebonne council