NEW ORLEANS, LA – Already struggling over how to pay a $17.5 million judgment to its firefighters’ pension fund, New Orleans could soon face another whopping bill, this one decades in the making.
Attorneys for Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the city firefighters union are expected to square off Friday (July 25) in Civil District Court over $75.5 million a judge ruled the city owes to more than 1,100 firefighters or their families for back pay earned between March 1990 and late 2006.
Louis Robein, an attorney for the union, asked Civil District Judge Kern Reese on June 30 to force city officials to come up with a pay plan. Assistant City Attorney Cashuana Hill responded that the administration is trying to do so.
“The city continues to evaluate its resources and seek creative solutions in an attempt to determine how and when the amount owed can be paid,” she wrote in a court filing.
Combined with the pension debt decision, the two judgments equal nearly a fifth of the city’s 2014 operating budget. And union representatives say they plan to demand another $54 million from the city to cover pension contribution shortfalls from 2010, 2011 and 2013. The $17.5 million only covers what Civil District Judge Robin Giarrusso deemed the city shorted the fund in 2012.
Firefighters and at least five mayors have battled in court over salaries and benefits.
The firefighters union, Local 632, first sued in 1981 over a change in 1979 to city policies governing how department employees accrued vacation and sick leave. That lawsuit was still grinding through the courts in 1993 when the firefighters tacked on another suit. This time, for the city’s failure to consistently award 2 percent state-mandated pay raises. That long-standing law required firefighters receive 2 percent raises every year, starting in their third year and continuing through their 23rd.
In February 2003 — the early days of former Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration — Judge Roland Belsome ruled that the city owed hundreds of firefighters or their families a collective $176.2 million for raises they should have received as far back as 1979. The city appealed under a state law that said such judgments can only go back three years before a lawsuit was filed. The 4th Circuit Court of Appeal agreed and limited damages to 1990.
After several pitched battles over raises for much of his tenure, Nagin enacted pay raises in 2007, bringing future paychecks for active firefighters in line with court orders. But that left past salaries still unsettled.
Negotiations over the back pay amount, which the union and the Landrieu administration started in 2011, were put on hold after firefighters sued in March 2013 over reduced city contributions to their pension plan in 2012.
Reese ruled on June 10 that $75.5 million was the proper calculation after city-hired auditors had examined firefighters’ past salaries. Individual firefighters or their heirs stand to make between $500 and $292,000 each in lump sum payments, depending on their tenures and ranks, court documents show.
From The Times-Picayunne