His notes in hand, Mayor Mitch Landrieu answers questions during the first public meeting on the budget on Aug. 13.
At a public forum on the upcoming budget last August, Mayor Mitch Landrieu addressed the city's progress on blight. XX Credit: Steve Myers / The Lens

Mayor Mitch Landrieu has touted how he’s made City Hall leaner and more efficient, noting that the city has come out from under a $100 million deficit since he took office.

But there’s one place that hasn’t seen much belt-tightening: the Mayor’s Office itself:

  • In the past three years, 50 Landrieu appointees have received $776,000 in salary increases, split about evenly between promotions and raises. In most cases, the employees work closely with Landrieu or his top deputy, Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.

  • Though the budget for the Mayor’s Office has dropped since Landrieu’s first year in office — along with most city departments — actual spending has risen every year.

  • General-fund staff in the Mayor’s Office itself — almost all of whom are appointees — has increased 60 percent since 2011.

The raises came up at last week’s meeting of the Civil Service Commission, which is considering a controversial set of Landrieu-proposed changes in how the city hires, promotes and evaluates employees.

“Guess what I found out? Out of the 600-plus unclassified employees, over $1 million have been given out in raises to a certain chosen few,” New Orleans Fire Fighters Association chief Nick Felton said at the meeting.

Employee groups, including Felton’s and both major police associations, are opposed to the changes.

Landrieu spokesman Tyler Gamble said Felton’s statement is misleading. “It misses the point that employees receive salary increases when they are promoted to new positions or take on additional responsibilities,” he said in an email.

Felton gave the commission a document with 62 names to back up his claim.

To verify the document, The Lens obtained those salary histories from the city’s Civil Service Department. Eleven aren’t mayoral appointees, it turns out. And one actually received a pay cut.

That leaves 50 employees, including one who quit a few weeks ago. Of those, 27 got a salary bump because they were promoted, according to the Landrieu administration.

In some cases, promoted employees are making less than the people they replaced. For example:

  • Former city Health Commissioner Karen DeSalvo earned $155,000 per year when she left City Hall. Her successor, Charlotte Parent, makes $127,000 per year.

  • Fire Chief Timothy McConnell’s $144,000 salary is $10,000 less than what his predecessor was paid when Landrieu took office in 2010, according to The Times-Picayune.

The other 23 received raises without a promotion or were rehired at a higher rate of pay after leaving City Hall.

Former mayoral spokesman Ryan Berni is one example. Berni left his $97,000 job last summer to work for Landrieu’s re-election campaign. In March, the city rehired him as “Senior Advisor for Strategy and Development.” The job pays $133,000, a $36,000 increase over his last job.

Those 23 employees’ most recent raises total nearly $203,000. Their increases since Landrieu took office come to nearly $354,000.

Felton’s math is about right: Since Landrieu took office in May 2010, the 50 appointees on that list have received about $1.1 million in raises and promotions. Their most recent salary bumps come to $776,000.

As a comparison, Landrieu’s proposal to raise the city’s minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, which would apply to nearly 200 city workers, would cost the city about $350,000 per year.

The city faces up to $40 million in unbudgeted expenses to reform Orleans Parish Prison and shore up the city’s fire pension system. Landrieu is seeking tax increases to offset those costs. Otherwise, he says, he may have to cut 345 jobs, furlough employees and cut a fifth of the city’s budget across the board.

In his statement, Gamble said the Landrieu administration has made strides in making City Hall leaner, including the mayor’s own office.

“Under this administration, City government has become smaller and more efficient,” Gamble said, adding that cuts have included “a 30 percent reduction in the budget for the Mayor’s Office alone in 2014 as compared to 2011.”

The general fund budget for the Mayor’s Office — the locally generated portion —is $10.6 million this year. That’s less than its $11.4 million spending plan in 2011, the first one overseen by Landrieu. But the 2014 budget shows that actual expenditures for the office came to less than $9 million in 2011 and have increased every year since.

Landrieu has hired more staff, too. Even as he has cut hundreds of positions citywide, the number of full-time staff in the Mayor’s Office paid from the city’s general fund has increased from 44 in 2011 to 71. All but seven of those positions are unclassified political appointees, according to the 2014 adopted city budget.

Meanwhile, the largest personnel losses have come from the police and fire departments, which are mostly made up of “classified” employees, who work under Civil Service protections.

Overall, the number of unclassified positions in the Mayor’s Office — those funded by outside sources as well as the city’s general fund — has grown from 76 in April 2010 to 136 in April 2014, Gamble said.*

He said most of those new unclassified positions in the Mayor’s Office are “temporary and limited to recovery work.” When Landrieu took office, Gamble said, the city ended a controversial contract with MWH Americas for Katrina rebuilding and brought that work in-house.

“This work is 100% reimbursed by FEMA and has provided the City flexibility in employee staffing as projects start and are completed,” Gamble said.

High earners in the administration include Berni, whose raises have totalled $62,000 since he started with the administration in 2010, and several employees who recently became department heads.

Parent’s $123,000 salary is a $25,000 increase from when she was the Health Department’s deputy director. She now earns about $50,000 more than she did when Landrieu’s term began.

Sharonda Williams, the highest paid employee on the list, got a $30,000 increase, to $158,000, when she was promoted from assistant city attorney to city attorney last year. She now earns $33,000 more than she did when she was hired in 2011.

On the low end, there’s Sarah Garrett, a decades-long veteran administrative employee in the Law Department. Her salary was raised $4,500 to $38,433 in 2012. That was her first raise since 2006.

Gamble pointed out that the list includes “employees who worked at City Hall long before this administration took office, some dating back to the 80s and 90s,” like Garrett.

Gamble himself received a $12,000 raise last year when Berni left the administration to work for the campaign. The year before, Gamble received a $17,000 bump when he was promoted. He now earns $70,000 a year, up from $40,000 when he was hired in 2011, records show.

This story was changed after publication to include the city’s explanation for the current number of unclassified employees, and to add the percentage that the Mayor’s Office budget has dropped from 2011 to 2014.

*Correction: This story originally stated that the number of unclassified employees citywide has increased from 250 in 2010 to 600 now. The city raised questions about the first figure and provided its own count. We have removed this portion of the story. (May 2, 2014)

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...