DENHAM SPRINGS -- A billboard just outside the north boundary of the city depicted a police officer's pay wages.
The billboard is courtesy of Chris Stewart, Executive Director for Louisiana in the International Union of Police Associations. Stewart crossed paths with the mayor earlier this year before later sending an open letter via social media and direct mail to the city.
The net pay shown was just shy of $640, the stub shows 84 hours worked for gross pay of $1,379.28, or $16.42 an hour. Officers are paid on a semi-monthly basis.
There are also three deductions included, which are health insurance ($445.54), taxes ($120.25), and "other" ($210).
While the city has no control over the tax rate, Mayor Gerard Landry went on to explain the other two deductions. For health insurance, Landry explained that the city covers the entirety of employees' health insurance cost — however, extra coverage, including dental and eye care, will be reflected as a deduction.
The city also does not cover family coverage, either, through the city's plan, only the officer's health insurance.
City records show that this particular officer had maxed out his health insurance plan for himself and his family, including special coverage.
The "other" section includes retirement, for which the officers have a 10% match — and the city carries a 32.5% match, up from 10% just six years ago.
Officers also have an immediate deduction that goes toward the police union coffers, a policy instituted under former mayor Jimmy Durbin. Unconfirmed sources have said that some officers are asking for that deduction to be removed.
Stewart's letter in July led off with an accusation that the mayor did not give Stewart and his team enough time to present a plan to help improve the salary levels of the police force. According to the city attorney, she had to attend court that day and only had 10 minutes, which was the reason for the abbreviated meeting.
The presentation, and Stewart's letter, discuss "several creative and doable ideas to provide for and finance pay and benefits increases as well as retain valuable public safety employees."
Details of the plan were not presented at the original meeting or within the letter. According to the mayor, in a future meeting with a police union representative, the proposition of a hotel and motel tax was presented with hopes it would help increase health insurance contribution.
Livingston Parish has a 2% hotel and motel tax levied by the Convention and Visitor's Bureau, via the state.
Police department salaries hit $1,961,992, with $1,090,302 in payroll taxes and benefits — which combine for roughly 18% of the city's total budget. The department has 37 employees, split between civilian and law enforcement, and produced roughly 14% turnover per year according to city records between 2015-2018. Those records also show that of the 21 officers who left, 13 resigned and 8 retired from law enforcement.
For the 2020 budget year, the police retirement employer contribution rate is 32.5%, or $571,072 (part of the $1,090,302) according to the budget provided — and accepted — by the Denham Springs Council in June.
Each police officer also receives a $500 per month, or $250 per pay period, stipend from the state of Louisiana. However, the state-level board to approve those payments met late this month, so the extra $250 income was not reflected in the considered pay check used to populate the billboard.
The billboard goes on to say that Denham Springs is "among the WORST pay for a police officer."
According to a 2019 study by the Louisiana Municipal Association (LMA), Denham Springs Police receive above median pay for officers in the state, and pay scales and wages are adopted by the council through the budget.
The council approved pay raises, specifically with regard to new enforcement officers being hired with experience, in November 2018. Those raises cost the city $12,000 to finalize that year, and will cost $30,000 in this fiscal year.
At the time, police chief Shannon Womack said for prior experience to be recognized must be “real law enforcement” patrolling or working on the street. Landry said the city can have trouble attracting experienced officers if they know they will start at a lower pay rate.
Gonzales, which is of similar geographic and population size to Denham Springs, has 48 officers on their force. Gonzales also has $9 million more in its budget.
Baton Rouge's pay scale for officers is "not much higher," according to DSPD's chief. However, the officers there do have opportunities for extra duty assignments that provide extra pay.
Councilman Jeff Wesley, who served as Denham Springs police chief before he retired, agreed. Officers have few opportunities today for extra duty assignments, he said at the meeting in which the DSPD pay raises were approved.
“That’s the decided blessing and curse of a high level of safety in our city,” Wesley said.
The timing of the July letter, sent by Stewart, as well as the billboard present a tough situation for the city. Denham Springs is still recovering from the Great Flood, dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) as well as businesses closing — a conservative budget reigns due to Albertson's closing, as well as some commercial spaces never being re-filled post flood.
Also, Stage recently announced they will be closing their store near on Range Avenue, near Interstate 12.
In the end, however, Landry reiterated that the city's policy on unions is that they are not recognized. The city treats all first responders as employees and, he said, "they are welcome to come talk to me at any time."