New Orleans mayor faces possible house arrest

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Facing a possible house arrest sentence, the mayor of New Orleans said Friday the city would appeal a judge’s order holding him in contempt for failing to come up with an acceptable plan to pay a $75 million judgment in a decades-old legal dispute with city firefighters.

But Mayor Mitch Landrieu also said Friday that he’s prepared to finish out the last two years of his term under house arrest on weekends rather than make a payment that would require drastic cuts in city services, including police and fire protection.

Civil District Judge Kern Reese gave the city a week to come up with a payment plan, and the judge threatened Landrieu with a house arrest sentence restricting the mayor to his home on weekends.

“I am prepared to stay under house arrest for the next two years of my term,” Landrieu said at a news conference.

He added with a grin: “My wife is really happy about it. She called me and said she’s been trying to get me stay home on weekends for the past 23 years. She’s already sent me her honey-do list.”

The Landrieu administration said it immediately filed an appeal. His lawyers said the judge overstepped his constitutional authority by interfering with the business of the executive and legislative branches.

This fight dates to 1979, when firefighters sued the city for back pay they say was owed to them under a 1968 state law giving firefighters annual raises based on their years of service.

Since 2006, firefighters have been paid the proper amount but about 1,100 firefighters are owed back pay, said Nick Felton, the president of the New Orleans Firefighters Local 632. The union has led the fight over back pay.

The firefighters are also seeking about $67 million in interest. Successive city administrations have never paid the roughly $142 million in back pay and interest the firefighters say they are owed. The city consistently has lost in court.

“Firefighters were cheated out of their salary,” Felton said.

The Landrieu administration recently offered to pay $15 million upfront to the firefighters and pay the rest of the amount over three decades. But the firefighters rejected that offer.

Landrieu accused the firefighters of driving too hard of a bargain. He called their tactics “a scorched earth policy” that threatened to hurt the city.

Andy Kopplin, the first deputy mayor and chief administrative officer, said the Landrieu administration does not have the funds the firefighters are asking for upfront. He said the city has a balance of $25 million, much less than what it should be. The city has proposed raising more money for firefighters with a property tax increase.

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