ZURIK: Kenner Mayor defends months of Ida disaster payments

Published: Feb. 1, 2022 at 10:44 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 1, 2022 at 10:55 PM CST
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JEFFERSON PARISH (WVUE) - After refusing to be interviewed for a month, Kenner mayor Ben Zahn finally sits down with FOX 8 to answer our questions about disaster overtime pay for some employees in the months after Hurricane Ida.

Zahn defended paying the extra money to Deputy CAO Chad Pitfield and other employees. In total last year, Pitfield made more than $220,000. $86,000 of that pay was disaster pay. “The guys and the ladies that slept on the floor of a trailer that had no running water; had power at the trailer; but had no services for themselves. They had to make sure the services were back. I think the average person, with me now coming out saying what happened… understands that those services were restored, because people gave their time away from their families,” Zahn said.

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Many other parishes stopped disaster pay after several weeks, but Kenner paid select employees the extra money for months after the August 29th storm. When asked how he justified continuing to pay some employees extra into December, Zahn said, “Because… things weren’t completed yet. And if you go back, and we look at… the hours, you see the things that he was still doing in those months.”

The city’s Chief Financial Officer, Elizabeth Herring says she’s been in contact with FEMA since the storm and expects to be reimbursed for all the disaster expenses. “It’s the same policy we’ve been having for years, it didn’t come from this administration,” Herring said, “We have been reimbursed under this exact same policy in previous disasters.” FOX 8 wanted to know if Kenner has pad employees disaster pay for four months or longer in previous storms. Kenner couldn’t tell us, but one former mayor told us it didn’t happen under his watch.

Kenner officials say Ida caused $100 million in damage. They say that’s much more than past storms, including Katrina ($48 million) and Isaac (less than $2 million).

Kenner is citing a policy for disaster pay that clearly states the payments should only be made when the city is closed due to an emergency. Kenner City Hall was damaged by the wind and rain of hurricane Ida and a temporary facility was opened last year. City government and all services opened at the end of September.

Zahn didn’t have a straightforward answer when asked when the disaster pay ended.

Zurik: “But it’s open. It’s open.”

Zahn: “yes.”

Zurik: “So you have a temporary city hall open, so why are you still paying disaster pay?”

Zahn: “Because we are still doing things that we’ve had to do. And we’ve had to check and see where the disaster pay, that’s a Liz question.”

Zurik: “But I mean, every parish (around) is going to be dealing with Ida issues for a long time. There’s no end in sight.”

Zahn: “That’s going to be a question…”

Zurik: “No, it’s a question for you. You’re the mayor. There’s no end in sight. When are you going to stop this?”

Zahn: “It’s a question that I have to check with the CFO, because like I said in the beginning, I’m not doing the job of the CFO. I’m doing the job of overseeing lots of things that are going on. And I trust the CFO, I trust my administration. I’ll be glad to get back to you and give you a timeline on that.”

After the interview, City officials told FOX 8 the last disaster paycheck went to employees the day after our initial story on the disaster pay aired. FOX 8 sued the City of Kenner to get them to hand over the records on the post-Ida disaster pay.

Zahn claims the taxpayer money was well spent, but FOX 8 found high level officials in other hard-hit parishes didn’t make nearly that much.

Lafourche Parish has a larger population than Kenner, and had more damage from Ida. However, the Lafourche Parish Administrator made $118,000 last year, and the Director of Public Works made $124,000. Those salaries included some overtime that both directors made in the weeks following hurricane Ida. Yet, neither earned close to the $223,000 that Deputy CAO Chad Pitfield was paid by Kenner.

Zahn says Pitfield went above and beyond to help the parish.

Zurik: “We collect records from every government, many years. We’ve talked to Lafouche, Terrebonne, St. John, St. Charles… parishes who were hit very hard by this. No one has paid an employee like you paid Chad Pitfield.”

Ben Zahn: “There’s an employee there that has done a lot. All of our employees did a lot of work. But you have one employee that has done consistent work throughout different hours, before 8:30 AM and past 4:30 PM.”

lee: “No other parish or entity has done that?”

zahn: “I understand. Maybe they don’t have a Chad Pitfield.”

The 2002 policy directs salaried employees to earn extra pay while the City of Kenner is closed due to an emergency. There are still questions about why Kenner continued to pay Pitfield and other employees, after the city reopened in late September.

Zurik: “But you’re not following the policy.”

Zahn: “Well, most administrations have never had to deal with what you’re looking at here. City Hall, does this look open? This city hall right here is not open.” Zurik: “But the city government’s open.” Zahn: “City government’s open… and city government had to continue in some type of form. And that’s what we continued to do.”

Zurik: “But late September, city government, the offices reopened.” Zahn: “You’re going on a on a Facebook post that we put out, not a legal document. There’s a legal way of doing it. There was a Facebook post, we went on a Facebook post that we were restoring City Hall to the people of Kenner. Like I said, City Hall has never taken this much devastation before.” Zurik: “But the city was open.” Zahn: “City, well, city was open.” Zurik: “City government was open. The policy says for employees who essentially aren’t essential and they don’t come into work, they can stay at home but still get paid. And then the people who are working, who are essential, are still get their money, but then they also get this additional money for any hours they are working. Well, those employees who were at home had returned to work and we’re getting paid.” Zahn: “Correct.” Zurik: “So the policy was not being followed.” Zahn: “Right. The policy was written by another was written years ago. We were following the policy to where we felt we needed to follow it.”

Kenner Councilmember Tom Wilmott wants reforms to the current disaster pay system. Under his new proposal, employees could only be paid disaster pay for five days. Anything beyond that would need to be approved by the Kenner Council.

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