Baton Rouge Airport Director Says Employees Need Raise

Director: Employees at airport need raise

In his proposed budget request for 2007, Metro Airport Aviation Director Anthony Marino argues that it's unfair to pay his employees the same as other city-parish workers.

"Airport employees are different from other city employees because they have greater skills, such as handling the foreign trade zone, (and) cross-training in fire and police," Marino wrote.

"However, their pay is equal. This inequity needs to be addressed. Baton Rouge Metro Airport needs to be compared to other airports, not Baton Rouge city employees," he added in the request.

Marino, who is projecting a $1.5 million surplus for 2006, largely because of a continuing post-Hurricane Katrina boom, said his agency's salaries have become a major problem in "attracting new talent" to the airport staff.

In an interview, Marino pointed to the airport's police-firefighters, who are cross-trained with certification in both firefighting and law enforcement, as an example of special skills needed at the airport.

Yet Marino said his police/firefighters are paid less than City Police because of the pay raise that was recently negotiated by Mayor-President Kip Holden's administration.

Walter Monsour, the mayor's chief administrative officer, explained that the airport's police-firefighters have a union, and noted that the administration will negotiate with that union just as it did with the City Police union.

In setting salaries, Monsour said it's important to look at the duties and responsibilities of airport police-firefighters, and compare them to City Police, East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff's deputies and constables.

Monsour said the airport operates as an enterprise fund, generating its own revenues to support its operations, but that does not mean Marino can pay his employees as much as he wants.

Airport employees are still city-parish workers, Monsour said, and should be paid the same as similar jobs in other departments.

"We don't want a situation where a Clerk II job at the airport is paid $30,000, while a Clerk II job in other city-parish departments is paid $25,000," Monsour said.

Monsour said he plans to begin reviewing the city-parish department budgets in detail after Labor Day, and will consider to the proposed budget requests submitted by Marino.

"Anthony is no different from any other city-parish department head - he thinks his employees aren't paid enough and that he needs more of them," Monsour said.

But Marino said that even the airport employees who mow the grass around the runways are expected to provide a higher level of performance than their counterparts in the city-parish Department of Public Works.

The airport mower operators have to communicate with the control tower via radio to avoid interfering with incoming and outgoing flights, he said.

"That means they have to be able to speak and understand the terminology used to direct air traffic," Marino said.

In addition, the airport mower operators have little or no room for error, he said.

If the mowers miss a spot and the grass grows high enough to go to seed, it will attract birds that can get sucked up in the jet engines of arriving and departing aircraft, and possibly cause a crash, Marino said.

Marino also emphasized the importance of maintaining competitive salaries for professional staff in the airport's administrative department.

In addition to comparing airport workers to other city-parish workers, Marino said, it's also important to look at how salaries at Metro Airport compare to other airports in the region.

In his budget request for next year, Martino is seeking salary reclassifications and pay raises for 12 of the airport's 17 administrative employees, two of its 15 airfield staffers, one of its 14 terminal building employees and 28 of its 32 police/firefighters.

The largest pay reclassification would go to Marino, increasing his annual $87,180 salary by $5,370. In addition, Marino receives $4,287 per month in city-parish retirement benefits, said city-parish Retirement Director Jeff Yates.

Marino also complained in the budget request that his department is hamstrung by regulations as a branch of city-parish government.

"The airport is attempting to operate as a business, but is part of government," the budget request said. "This constrains activities that are necessary to operating a profitable venture, such as lease agreements. The city requires more requirements and less flexibility to negotiate and structure leases."

The budget request also says Metro Airport has to follow government regulations that require major purchasing contracts to go to the lowest bidder. "Sometimes this may not be the best provider," Marino said.

Marino has previously raised the question of whether the airport should be a city-parish department, Monsour said. "It's really almost an age-old issue," he said.

If Marino wants to change the way that the airport is run, he should take his case to the Airport Authority, which actually the Metro Council, Monsour said.

In all, the airport's 2007 spending plan anticipates expenses to total $10.7 million, up from this year's $9.3 million. Revenues for next year are projected to total $11.9 million, which are expected to result in a surplus of almost $1.2 million.

One of Metro Airport's goal for 2007 is to keep its average fares within $40 of its major competitor, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in Kenner.

Marino's budget request indicates that airport officials are looking to seat a record number of passengers on commercial flights next year as the post-Katrina boom continues.

The proposed 2007 airport budget anticipates a record 598,243 passengers, a 2.5 percent increase over this year's 583,652. In 2005, the passenger count was 523,417. In 2004, the last full year before Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the passenger count was 375,412.