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PAYING TOP DOLLAR? Vidalia salaries top Miss-Lou paychecks

BEN HILLYER / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Vidalia city manager Ken Walker, at top, manages the financial operations of the city, including the more than 180 employees that work for the city.

VIDALIA — Twenty-two employees in the City of Vidalia will take home annual salaries of more than $50,000 this year, including a maintenance man, a security guard and an office manager.

Another 36 employees will make between $40,000 and $50,000. The city’s $5.9 million annual payroll was shared by 181 fulltime employees in the 2011-2012 fiscal year. Employees hired mid year are not counted in that total.

By comparison, only five employees in the City of Natchez make more than $50,000. Natchez pays 237 employees a total of $6.1 million annually.

Natchez’s population is approximately 15,800, while the Vidalia population is 4,300.

But Vidalia operates on a significantly higher annual budget than Natchez, due almost entirely to the fact that the Louisiana city owns its own utilities.

A recently approved 2012-2013 proposed budget for the City of Vidalia included $30 million in expected expenditures. The City of Natchez is currently operating on a $12.1 million budget.

Vidalia City Manager Ken Walker said the city keeps the profits residents in cities like Natchez pay to private companies such as Entergy, and others.

“We do have to have more employees to operate a utility system — gas, electric, sewer and garbage — but it gives us more control of what’s going on and the services we’re able to offer,” Walker said.

It also inflates the budget and allows for higher salaries paid to public workers, something Mayor Hyram Copeland said is a good, necessary thing to get good work.

“I am very proud to pay our employees what we pay them,” he said.

The departments

The highest-paid employees in Vidalia are administrators.

Walker brings home the biggest check, at $110,669.20 annually.

Salaries drop off from there; Copeland makes $75,948 annually; Police Chief Arthur Lewis makes $72,506; Utility Department Superintendent Mark Morace makes $69,944; Fire Chief Jack Langston makes $66,347; and City Clerk Vicki Byrnes makes $65,893.

Administrators aside, the city’s largest departments are:

•Utilities with an annual payroll of $1.8 million and 53 employees.

• Police with an annual payroll of $1.48 million and 52 employees, including Lewis and his salary.

• Fire with an annual payroll of $891,451 and 22 employees, including Langston and his salary.

ILLUSTRATION / THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — This chart shows the 22 Vidalia employees that make an annual salary of $50,000 or above.

• Vidalia Conference and Convention Center with an annual payroll of $447,918 and 14 employees.

By comparison, in the City of Natchez:

• The Natchez Police Department, which operates a jail, spends $1.8 million on salaries annually for 69 total employees.

• The Natchez Fire Department spends $1.4 million on salaries annually for 50 total employees.

• The mayor of Natchez makes $62,820.

The City of Natchez does not run its own utility department or hire convention center employees. Natchez pays a minimum of $240,000 annually to New Orleans Hotel Consultants to manage the Natchez Convention Center.

Setting salaries

In Vidalia, Walker and each corresponding department head set the salaries, but the board of aldermen has the ultimate authority when they approve the city’s budget.

“We sit down with the different departments, because we do want to hear what they need to run their departments effectively,” Walker said.

Salaries and budgets from Louisiana cities like Morgan City, Houma and Natchitoches, which all own their own utility systems, are used for comparison during budgetary planning.

“Our budget is based upon the utility system, and not every town our size, is going to have a budget our size because they don’t have the utility system to maintain and operate,” Walker said. “If you compare our salaries to what people are making in some of those cities, I think are salaries are very much in line.”

Vidalia also factors in seniority and a desire to stay competitive with the private sector — in Vidalia and Natchez — when it determines salary ranges, Copeland said.

According to 2010 U.S. Census data, the per capita income in Concordia Parish is $15,911, while the median household income is $30,062.

In Adams County, the per capita income is $17,473, while the median household income is $27,096.

The average income of Vidalia employees in the current fiscal year is $32,566.

Still, Copeland wants to do better.

“I wish we could pay our employees more, but the country is in a tough economic time right now,” he said.

The $32.8-million budget adopted for the 2012-2013 fiscal year included no pay raises for any city employees.

“We made a decision city wide to keep salaries in line with what they have been in previous years,” Walker said. “Because of the current economic situations that the country is in, we didn’t feel it was prudent to increase our budget currently.

“The board’s goal is for the city to operate efficiently, so sometimes salary increases aren’t an option.”

Since the police chief is an elected position, the police department is the only department that is able to control its budget separately, but Walker said he works closely with Lewis to provide budgetary assistance as needed.

“His expertise is law enforcement and mine is with budget and finances, so we work closely together,” Walker said. “We provide the chief with the resources he needs to put together his budget and make sure the police department has what they need to protect our community.”

Adding on

In the last decade, Vidalia has created or significantly expanded several departments.

Five employees currently work in the city’s Internet Technology Department, which has an annual payroll of $94,749. The IT director makes $41,147.

The city’s recreation department has grown as well, with the construction and the expected opening of a new complex on U.S. 84.

Parks and Recreation Director Johnny Lee Hoffpauir makes $48,984 annually.

The department’s annual payroll is $84,588 for four employees, including Hoffpauir.

As the city continues to work toward implementing its broadband initiative project, which will install fiber optics to every home and business in the city, Walker said the IT department would continue to grow.

“We’re being proactive and thinking ahead, because the world is connected, and if you’re not connected in the appropriate way, you’re going to be left behind,” Walker said. “It’s not about getting faster Internet for someone to download Netflix movies quicker — this is about jobs.”

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