- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

NEW ORLEANS, March 13 (UPI) — A New Orleans firefighters' union official said Thursday the $195 million award the local won in a 25-year-old pay dispute need not bankrupt the city as one official has warned is possible.

Charles Rice, the city's attorney, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune the judgment could bankrupt the city if it was upheld on appeal. He said Wednesday's ruling would be appealed all the way to the Louisiana Supreme Court, if necessary.

With interest, the city's liability could grow to $360 million, according to city officials. This amounts to more than 50 percent of the New Orleans operating budget for 2003. If the award is upheld, Rice said, "It would basically bankrupt the city."

Nicholas Felton, president of New Orleans Firefighters Association Local 632, said Thursday that the judgment does not have to bankrupt the city.

"The firefighters have always acted in a very prudent manner and we will continue to act in a prudent manner," he said. "We have options for the city administrators that will not bankrupt the city. We are not looking to bankrupt the city."

Civil District Judge Roland Belsome's ruling put a price tag on the lawsuit filed by the firefighters union in 1979 to force the city to comply with a state law requiring firefighter pay systems take longevity into account.

After the state law was enacted in the 1960s, the city briefly implemented a 2 percent pay increase beginning in their third year of service. In 2000, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the law but the sides have continued to wrangle over retroactive pay.

The new administration of Mayor Ray Nagin agreed in January to immediately implement a longevity pay system retroactive to Jan. 1, 2002, after union attorneys asked Belsome to hold the city in contempt of court.

Under the new agreement, veteran firefighters received lump-sum payments dating back 13 months. The retroactive payments and salary adjustments this year will cost the city about $1.2 million.

In another salary dispute, Nagin and the city council denied firefighters an unrelated pay raise that went to all other city workers Jan. 1 because of uncertainty about the outcome of the 25-year-old lawsuit. About $650,000 was placed in an escrow account for the firefighters but the council has now used it to make retroactive payments.

Union officials have called the decision unfair because they are separate pay issues.

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