A 5 p.m. deadline loomed on Friday for the city of New Orleans to either pay its firefighters $75 million in back wages or see Mayor Mitch Landrieu placed under weekend house arrest until a deal is reached.
The standoff is the result of a decades-old settlement over back wages that have gone unpaid through several mayoral administrations. The local firefighters union recently sought to have the city held in contempt of court for not honoring the commitment.
Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese granted the union’s request last week and went a step further, saying he would order Landrieu to be confined to his home during weekends if the case was not resolved by the end of business on Friday.
Landrieu initially said he would stay under weekend house arrest rather than agree to a deal he considers devastating to the cash-strapped city.
But city officials have since said they will appeal the contempt ruling and asked the judge to stay the arrest order.
Under a 1980s judgment, the city owes firefighters $75 million in back wages, plus $67 million in interest, due to the city not giving firefighters raises required by state law.
The union claims the city owes much more after a subsequent judgment stemming from the city’s decision to reduce annual payments to the firefighters’ pension system. But the Landrieu administration says the union is making unreasonable demands.
New Orleans is under federal consent decrees that mandate costly reforms to its prison and its police department, and it is struggling to find the money to hire more police officers and make street repairs while boosting cash reserves in order to improve its credit rating.
“The firefighters insist on cutting to the front of the line ahead of everybody else,” said New Orleans Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin.
He said the city has proposed to pay a portion of the back wages upfront with the remainder stretched over 30 years.
The union, though, has scoffed at the idea. Taking decades to fully compensate firefighters would be unacceptable, firefighters union president Nick Felton said in a televised interview on Thursday
Felton said the union does not think putting the mayor under house arrest will help matters, however.
“We believe that house arrest or disciplinary action of any kind is not the way to go, but that’s what the court is doing,” he said.