FOX 8 Investigates: Top $ Presidents

Published: Nov. 18, 2014 at 12:13 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 18, 2014 at 2:19 PM CST
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"There's definitely something wrong with that picture," said Former St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez.

"There are some people who are stealing their money, that's for sure," UNO Political Analyst Edward Chervenak said.

From the port cities to black bear country, the concrete jungles to the bayous, the Louisiana landscape is a vast range. The salaries of the parish leaders vary just as much.

"People are going to be interested in this, and they should be. That's their tax payer's dollars," Rodriguez said.

When asked if they knew how much their parish presidents make, most people responded "I don't have a clue" and "I sure don't."

In Southeast Louisiana alone, yearly paychecks for parish presidents range from $72,317 in Lafourche to $154,596 in St. Tammany. It's a discrepancy that may not be too surprising when considering population size. However, FOX 8 uncovered that isn't always the case; the size of the parish doesn't always fit the size of the salary.

"The executives in the big parishes are being paid far less than the executives in the small parishes,"Chervenak said.

Take the largest and smallest parishes by population in Southeast Louisiana. Jefferson Parish's John Young makes $146,262. He governs a parish with more than 433,000 people in it. St. James has just a fraction of the number of residents: 21,700. However, the president of St. James, Timothy Roussel, makes $150,780.

"I think that's ridiculous," Rodriguez said. "The smallest parish? Something's wrong.

Chervenak said the discrepancy becomes more clear when you sort "per capita." In Jefferson Parish, for every 1,000 people, John Young makes $337. In St. James Parish, for every 1,000 people, Timothy Roussel makes $6,941."The per capita income of Timothy Roussel is 20 times that of John Young,"Chervenak explained. "Is he worth 20 times more than John Young? That's the question."

FOX 8's findings didn't just take residents aback, it also jolted one of the highest-paid parish presidents.

FOX 8's Leigh Isaacson asked Timothy Roussel, "Are you surprised to find out you make more than John Young in Jefferson Parish, for example?"

Roussel replied, "I was very surprised."

Roussel said FOX 8's salary list made him wonder why Jefferson Parish's Home Rule Charter doesn't tie the president's salary to the sheriff's salary, like St. James' does.

Roussel's salary is "kept equal to the salary of the St. James Parish Sheriff," a spokesperson explained. The Sheriff's salary is set by the state Legislature.

"It is a great responsibility, and I wanted that responsibility. I ran for office. Did I know what the salary was? I thought I knew what the salary was. It was a little bit better than I expected but again, it's done by legislative act through a formula," said Roussel. "I got elected into this seat and it was already made up, already done."

Roussel said he lives up to his salary's worth of responsibilities

"I tell you what, if they come to the office at 6 o'clock in the morning, they're going to find me here. If they call up my office, I will return that phone call. I don't turn my back on anyone," Roussel said. "We deal with people from the poorest of the poor in our community all the way up to dealing with a $12 billion complex that's looking to come into St. James Parish. So, we need to be able to communicate from one extreme to the other extreme. Takes a lot of work."

Some who work in his parish said much more needs to be done for the community.

"A lot of people out of jobs here, a lot of people have no money. I see when I work here - people come in with change, dime and nickels, they don't have no money to get food," said Hasan Lukayana, a business owner in Gramercy.

Whatever the opinion is, it would take a parish-wide vote to change Roussel's salary formula.

"I view this position as a parish president as like being a CEO, and if you was to go around St. James Parish looking at industry, and I know industry is not an elected position, but with their stock options and salaries I would venture to say that it was probably a lot more than what I'm getting paid," Roussel said.

Head down FOX 8's salary list, and the smaller parishes continue to stand out.

"These people, certainly they don't have the responsibilities that the parish presidents and the mayors have in the big parishes, yet they're being paid rather handsomely," Chervenak said.

Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser makes $50,000 less than Roussel at $100,000. However, his small parish puts him at No. 2 on the per capita list. He makes $4,180 for every 1,000 residents.

According to his spokesperson, Nungesser said his salary is set by the Parish Council. He also said to consider the amount of people who come to work in Plaquemines and offshore and that he makes less than the other parish presidents on the top of the per capita list.

At No. 3  on the per capital list is St. John Parish President Natalie Robottom with a base salary of $143,400. Robottom makes $3,203 per 1,000.

Robottom had no comment for this story.

"People are getting less bang for their buck. They're paying big time for their chief executives that's not commensurate with the size of that parish," Chervenak said.

"I think the more responsibility you have, the more salary you should make," said Slidell resident Lynn Schayot.

Not everyone FOX 8 spoke with thought the salaries need to be changed.

"If they're doing their job, it could be well worth it," said Slidell resident Robert Mosley.

However, Rodriguez said the responsibilities of smaller parishes will never match that of the larger ones.

"I think it should be based on population," Rodriguez said. "When I was parish president, I was getting $70,000 a year. That was during the hurricane. We had 70,000 people."

Now, St. Bernard has dropped to 41,000 people and the salary has almost doubled.

"I know in St. Bernard $128,000 is ridiculous," Rodriguez said.

Zoom out from Southeast Louisiana to take a look at the whole state and the salary numbers continue to climb.

FOX 8 asked spokespeople from each parish to send us the salary of their parish president or the person who has similar responsibilities and found that 14 parish leaders make more than Gov. Bobby Jindal's $130,000.

The highest-paid elected parish president lives West of Baton Rouge in Iberville Parish. Michael Ourso makes $157,664 dollars to govern 33,000 people. That's $4,744.91 for every 1,000 residents.

Elsewhere in the state "parish administrators" hold the same responsibilities as parish presidents, but they are appointed by a committee of elected officials.

In Calcasieu, Parish Administrator Bryan Beam makes more than $169,000.

Topping off the list of salaries is Caddo Parish Administrator Woodrow Wilson Jr. He makes $178,755 a year.

"People in these parishes need to ask whether their government can be more efficient. Can they do better in terms of the money that they're putting into government here?" Chervenak said.

They're undeniable important positions with the responsibility of running parish government. However, Chervenak said it's important to keep in mind who decides just how much the leaders should be compensated. Especially now, as many administrations propose how they'll spend parish tax dollars next year.

"Remember that these are the people who write the rules, and they write the rules in their favor, and so they're going to write the rules in a manner that helps bump up their salaries. They get to decide, but voters should know exactly what those salaries are so they can make a decision come election time in 2015," Chervenak said.

After the story aired on Fox 8 News Monday night, St. Bernard Parish President David Peralta sent the following statement:

“The salary for parish president of St. Bernard Parish was set prior to my election to office. It is comparable to other offices in the parish that have much smaller operations and fewer responsibilities. St. Bernard Parish is also unique from several of the parishes in the metropolitan area in that there are no municipalities in our parish, thus making the parish government the sole provider of many services for our entire community. Though our population has not yet returned to pre-Katrina levels, St. Bernard Parish has a large geographic jurisdiction, has had to repair or replace the pre-Katrina existing infrastructure and is still engaged in recovery projects.”

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