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Wage Against the Machines

Four veteran employees of the city of New Orleans -- two city supervisors and a pair of top mechanics -- have come up with an ambitious plan to create new jobs and big raises at the city garage, while saving taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year. More importantly, the plan aims to stanch the steady loss of veteran mechanics at the 24-hour city Equipment Maintenance Division (EMD) in eastern New Orleans, which keeps fire trucks, police cars and other vehicles running on the city streets.

"You don't want these vehicles to break down when they are en route to a fire or emergency," says EMD fleet service manager Barry Gangolf, a 32-year city employee and co-author of the plan. "You don't just hire someone from a gas station to work on a fire truck. You have to know about pumps, sirens, lights, hydraulics and plumbing, too." Moreover, EMD mandates that essential personnel be on the front lines for hurricanes, floods and major fires to ensure that city vehicles are working properly.

But addled by non-competitive hiring rates, the city garage has lost 48 percent of its mechanics since 1995 to retirement and higher-paying opportunities in neighboring parish governments and the private sector, officials say. As a result, EMD has been forced to contract out more of its repair work to higher-priced mechanics in the private sector.

"For the last seven years, our recruitment and retention has been real bad because our pay rates were not even competitive [with neighboring Jefferson Parish]," says Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Jay Palastina.

After a series of meetings, EMD fleet manager Ted Melson, Gangolf and Richard Chapman, a supervising mechanic at the city garage, completed their turn-around plan in March, which was enthusiastically embraced by Mayor Ray Nagin and then-CAO Kimberly Williamson Butler. The City Council approved the plan last month. EMD's blueprint for recruitment, retention and taxpayer savings kicked off in earnest last Friday, May 16, when all 57 mechanics saw pay raises ranging from 28 to 60 percent.

Senior city auto mechanics saw the biggest increase in their paychecks, from $8.03 per hour to $12.87 per hour under the new plan -- a 60.3 percent raise and $1.67 more per hour than mechanics in Jefferson Parish. Senior mechanics in the private sector earn $18 per hour, plus commissions.

With more muscular hiring rates, EMD now plans the phased-in hiring of 15 additional mechanics. Palastina says the added manpower will allow the city to save money by restoring control of some operations currently done by private contractors, salvaging parts from retired city vehicles, and increasing in-house repairs. "The private sector charges us up to $60 an hour to repair a city vehicle. It costs the city only $13 an hour to do the same job in-house," says Chapman. "A fuel tank for a police car can cost about $400," says Gangolf. "It costs us just $30 in labor charges to salvage one fuel tank from an old police car and that's just one example of the savings we can find." Chapman, Gangolf and Melson all worked on the "nuts and bolts of the plan," Palastina says.

An estimated 250 city vehicles are in some stage of repair each day, with emergency vehicles getting priority, Palastina says. "The money saved by all these changes will offset the cost of the salary increases for current employees as well as the cost of hiring the new workers," he says. EMD should save $240,000 a year after all 15 mechanics are eventually hired, he says.

City personnel director J. Michael Doyle, whose department will soon publish job listings for the first five mechanics, says he is optimistic. "A good thing for all employers to try is to ask their employees, 'Is there a better way to do it?'" he says.

  Webbed Feat

New Orleans ordinances covering everything from noisy neighbors to business licensing can now be accessed online. The city code can be found at http://livepublish.municode.com/25/lpext.dll?f=templates&fn=main-j.htm&vid=10040. Meanwhile, the official city Web site now contains a "property data base," which lists property tax assessments by address or owners from parish tax assessors. "It tells you the land value, sales information, the current owner, and it tells you if the property is listed as blighted or is being adjudicated in the courts," says Patrick Evans, chief spokesman for Mayor Ray Nagin.

The site also saves residents a trip to the assessors' offices. Posted March 26, the "property database" is listed under the "housing" hyperlink on the home page of the city's Web site at www.New-Orleans.la.us/home.

 

Abita Man Can


Former Abita Springs Mayor Bryan Gowland, who retired in December after 12 years of mayoring and 33 years of teaching Louisiana history to high school students, is now campaigning for the revival of a Northshore music tradition. Gowland and three partners have formed the Abita Springs Opry, an effort to revive the popular Piney Woods Opry, which disbanded in 1999. Like its predecessor, the Abita Opry features old time country music, bluegrass and Southern gospel along with homemade gumbo, cold drinks, and "non-alcoholic family entertainment." The next Opry begins at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 24, at the Abita Springs Town Hall. Tickets are available at the door only. For more information, visit www.abitaopry.com.

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