Ascension Parish President Clint Cointment responded last week to criticism over offering hazard pay by firing back at accusations that bureaucrats were running a “get rich scheme.”
Cointment released a statement through a press release from Public Information Officer Martin McConnell, which has been met by both agreeable and dissenting reactions among social media commenters.
Cointment opened by stating that he has been “very proud of the way parish employees have responded” and continue to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
He has said many times that “there is no play book” for handling the challenges of COVID-19.
“Though I am grateful to all employees whose efforts allowed essential services to be provided, I am particularly proud of the employees who put themselves in harm’s way to serve and protect,” he said in the statement.
Cointment acknowledged that he has received criticism for offering employees hazard pay, but said he has “absolutely no regrets.”
“During these uncertain times, there are no easy answers to very complicated questions, nor are there any COVID-19 pandemic experts to turn to for answers,” the statement continued.
Cointment expressed pride in how parish employees have risen to the occasion. He added that he looks forward to “working with them to re-open our economy.”
According to the release, at the time, the total cost of hazard pay was $158,792. In the statement, Cointment said that figure amounted to .00676 percent of the annual payroll and .0007 percent of the total parish budget.
“Some have insinuated that hazard pay was a ‘get rich scheme’ that benefited government bureaucrats,” he said in the release. “For the record, 85 percent of the hazard pay dollars paid to employees went to departments who could not perform their job duties from home, like nurses, OEP, Health Unit and DPW employees.”
He added that another four percent went to the staff at the Lamar-Dixon Expo Center in Gonzales. Cointment said those employees work a 24-hour shift to manage the RV park there, which he said generates $750,000 annually.
The parish president pointed out the “countless hours” the staff spent preparing the facility for a walk-through event with the Louisiana National Guard in just two days, and the development of a multi-million-dollar plan to convert the center into a 1,500-bed hospital.
“Thankfully this was not needed,” Cointment said.
He went on to mention the parish’s building inspectors who “walked onto hundreds of construction sites to inspect and ensure that each structure was safe.”
Cointment said the Building Permit Department finished 2,152 inspections, issued 742 permits, and collected $377,264 in fees.
In referring to nurses, he said they have worked a 24-hour shift at the parish jail to “prevent a COVID-19 outbreak from occurring.”
Cointment said a coronavirus cluster developing at the jail would have left taxpayers “on the hook for as much as $360,000 a month” in fees to house inmates in a private facility.
He said “it is never safe being a nurse in a jail that houses 500 inmates.” Being on the “front line providing medical care” to inmates added to the risk.
Cointment said some nurses in the private sector have been paid “combat pay” for their efforts during the crisis.
“The nurses who work for parish government are equally qualified and equally deserving,” he said. “Their dedication to service is admirable.”
Cointment suggested some have claimed that he and his chief administration officer “got rich from hazard pay.”
“...you need to check your facts,” he lobbed at critics.
Cointment said neither of them have “taken a single cent” in such pay. He added that he allowed two of his assistants, who were not explicitly named, to take hazard pay.
“Not because they wanted it, but because they deserved it,” he said.
Cointment pointed out that both assistants had immediate family members impacted by the virus.
“They worked every hour they claimed plus some,” he said in the release.
Cointment went on to mention the $11,313 in hazard pay that went to the staff at the parish Office of Emergency Preparedness. He said that payment “may have been the best money this parish has ever spent.”
The staff at OEP secured the funds and coordinated the logistics for the free, drive-through testing site at Donaldsonville Primary School. Upon opening, parish and regional officials touted the testing site as positive progress in the coronavirus crisis.
He said the site went from a concept to reality “in a matter of days.” He called it critical in providing at-risk populations access to testing.
In closing the statement, Cointment said he was “the first to admit that the parish government has a lot of work to do to become more efficient and effective.”
“I understand citizen’s skepticism toward government spending. I share their skepticism. But I will say it again, I have no regrets,” he said.
Cointment concluded by saying he places high demands on employees, and in return, stands behind them.
“I gave voters my word that I would make parish government smaller and smarter,” he said. “I have every intention on delivering on my promise. In the short term, my staff and I will stay focused on beating back the COVID-19 virus and re-opening our economy.”
Many responded positively to the statement on the parish’s Facebook page, including one commenter who expressed appreciation for the parish president’s transparency.
A more mixed review of the statement could be found elsewhere on social media.
One commenter was critical of comparing a government entity to a private business. While government relies on funds from taxes, private enterprises must compete in the market for profits, he argued.
Former Parish Council member Daniel “Doc” Satterlee was among those to question the decision. His Facebook post criticized the parish leader for singling out certain employees during a time of crisis.