In The News › New Orleans Mayor Landrieu: No firefighter pension reform, no Fire Department tax money

New Orleans Mayor Landrieu: No firefighter pension reform, no Fire Department tax money

By Richard Rainey | The Times-Picayune

June 25, 2014

As Mayor Mitch Landrieu stood at the lectern, Nick Felton saw the open microphone and a chance to rekindle a squabble he has had with the mayor for years now.

In a roundabout way, Felton, the president of the New Orleans firefighters union, wanted to know why Landrieu is reticent about collecting as much money as he could under a new tax increase proposal to pay for fire protection services. That tax measure could be sent to city voters before the end of the year.

“There has been some confusion out there about exactly the position of the mayor’s office and how it relates to how much would be requested by you,” Felton said Wednesday (June 25). “And what is your game plan for passing that particular tax?”

Landrieu, invited by the watchdog Bureau of Governmental Research to speak at its annual breakfast meeting, didn’t hesitate.

“In my opinion, and I understand that you disagree with me, the firefighters’ public pension system, the way it is currently constructed, is unsustainable,” he said. “It doesn’t make any sense and it needs to be changed. You and I have battled in the Legislature on that issue for the past five years.”

Landrieu said earlier this month that he plans to ask for the maximum allowable from taxpayers to cover police protection services, but that he would balk at doing the same for the Fire Department. In other words, the mayor is threatening to withhold any future tax revenue as leverage to force firefighters to support his vision for changing the pension system.

“If we can agree on structural changes to the system in a way that I feel good (about), that I can tell the public I think this is sustainable funding, then I’m going to be standing right next to you. If the system is not sustainable, if it does not function, if it’s still upended, I would like to say I think we’re going to have a more difficult time.”

It’s a politically volatile topic made even more so by a looming court order that the city must pay at least $17.5 million into the fund for debts owed since 2012. Landrieu has said he won’t make that payment until legally forced to.

State lawmakers approved Landrieu’s property tax increase plan earlier this year, but now it must weave through a process before the city can collect a dime. First, voters statewide must approve a constitutional amendment allowing the tax because it won’t be subject to the state’s homestead exemption. Second, the City Council must agree to put the measure on a ballot before New Orleans voters, who are its final hurdle, can consider it.

“We’re looking at a six- to 10- to 12-month discussion period to get that done,” Landrieu said.

Felton wasn’t the only one to ask Landrieu a pointed question Wednesday. New Orleans resident Amy Stelly criticized the mayor for botched renovations at the Treme Center. The city had to close its newly reopened gym and pool for safety reasons.

“A $6.1 million investment and counting and the center is still broken. The citizens of Treme have consistently asked for public engagement and your staff continues to ignore us,” Stelly said.

Landrieu did not defend the construction mistakes.

“It is a beautiful renovation, but unfortunately this particular project went a little bit askew,” he said. “Not all projects go the way as planned.”

But he did defend his staff.

“Miss Stelly, I don’t want to have this argument with you here. You know that’s not accurate. My staff has been in daily communication with you and in numerous public meetings.”

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