During a special session Tuesday night, the Hammond City Council unanimously decided to consider adjusting the city’s pay grades and enacting a one-time “retention” payment for employees.

The council set a vote for May 24, eliciting cheers, noticeable excitement, and a standing ovation from Mayor Pete Panepinto.

The decision came three hours into the special session after a lengthy and enthusiastic discourse around city employee pay, especially for police officers and firefighters.

HR Nola, a firm hired to conduct the pay study, recommended new salaries and benefits for 107 municipal jobs based on “industry and geographical standards,” according to the firm.

The suggested raises range from 2 percent higher to 92 percent higher. To implement HR Nola’s highest-suggested pay raises throughout the city, it would cost the city an additional $5.1 million.

When Devon Wells, councilman for District 3, questioned the firm’s comparison metrics, Jacob Dufour with HR Nola defended the firm’s decision to base its suggestions on comparisons with cities like Lafayette, Mandeville, New Orleans and Baton Rouge instead of cities with similar population and revenue to Hammond’s.

“I can promise that folks that are leaving the workforce that are working for your city are not waiting for jobs to open up in similarly-sized cities,” he said. “They’re not checking budgets for similarly sized cities. They are looking for higher compensation.”

Wells said he supports raises for city employees, but “no one is going to get rich off of these jobs.”

Lacy Landrum, the council’s clerk, said public service should be valued higher within the community, as many jobs are “completely dangerous and completely things that most average people don’t want to do.”

“I think it is not a place where you get super rich from doing it, but it is a place where we should recognize the value of that work,” Landrum said. “Whatever it takes to get the pay raised in the City of Hammond, that is what we’re going to do.”

Hammond firefighters and police officers packed into the council’s chambers and spilled out the doors into the lobby waiting for their moment to voice their need for higher compensation.

Jennifer Payne, a lieutenant with the Hammond Police Department, gestured to her son and husband, another HPD officer, and her voice shook with fervor as she addressed the council.

Payne said she knew what she signed up for when she accepted the position at 21 years old.

“I’ve kept this job because I love it, but I can only get to this point for so long before you say, ‘This just isn’t worth it anymore,’” she said. “I’ve finally turned the corner from being an angry police officer to being an angry citizen because I am going to have to sell my house and move. There will be no police here. There will be no one to put out the fire at your house.”

She said if the department does not get a raise, she will leave Hammond.

“We know our worth now,” she said. “We pay $60,000 for someone to sit and make this graph, but we can’t raise salaries. It’s ridiculous.”

Payne said the cities named in the pay study as “large municipalities” include Baton Rouge, Houma, Lake Charles, Monroe, Ruston, Lafayette, as well as several others.

“We are competitive with NOPD because there are people who live here who work for NOPD,” she said.

Payne has served with HPD for 22 years, and she said a police officer who transferred from HPD to another department this year has a higher salary than hers.

“Twenty-two years…why would I stay here?” she said. “And I’m not the only person who feels that way.”

George Bergeron, clad in his police uniform, is another 22-year veteran on the Hammond police force. He said this is the first pay study he’s seen that gives employees a reasonable increase.

The starting pay for his position, lieutenant, is $36,708, which is 92 percent below the regional average.

After the sixth public comment, Council President Kip Andrews said every council person wants city employees to get a raise. In 2021, the council used funds for 2 percent raises for city employees across the board.

“I know there are some that put their lives on the line different than others in this city,” he said. “I promise you this, no matter what job you’re doing, you’re still not going to feel that you’re being compensated the way you think you should be.”

He agreed that employees knew what their starting salaries would be when they accepted their jobs, but he said times have changed.

“That was 21 years ago, and things have changed,” he said. “If we’re looking at the way things are right now, your check will be burned up in gas. It’s time for us to stop pointing the finger, playing games back and forth with each other, and we need to come to an agreement to get our employees to where they need to be.”

One officer replied that there is a number that would satisfy employees – the regional average.

“That number is important,” she said. “Because you can drive 20 minutes down the road and find a number that makes you really happy.”

Two men with the fire department’s union said the council has a chance to make a difference in the lives of the city’s employees.

“We love this city, and we don’t want to go anywhere,” one said. “Our roots are here.”

Angelo Monistere, assistant police chief with HPD, said the department has lost 35 officers in the last few years.

“When these officers come to work and enter that squad room, I think their focus is, ‘Where can we put in an application to make some money?’ as opposed to ‘What can we do today to solve more crime?’” Monistere said. “We have the tax revenue. I think the money is there.”

Wells said after hearing comments from so many people with a vested interest in raises, he was ready to vote on the issue. The audience cheered.

Carlee White Gonzales, councilwoman for District 2, motioned to amend the agenda to add a resolution adopting HR Nola’s first pay raise option in its report and adding a minimum 2 percent raise to any employee the option doesn’t provide a raise for.

The only employees without a raise in HR Nola’s report are those who make a salary at or above the suggested amount.

Gonzales’ motion passed unanimously.

Wells suggested giving all city employees a one-time retroactive payment for January through May 2022, as the new salaries would not start until June, after the council appropriates money in the budget through a vote. The council named these “retention payments” and unanimously passed an ordinance to allot money in the budget toward the new pay scales and retention payments.

The council will vote on implementing the budget, complete with salary adjustments and retention pay, at its meeting on May 24.

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