Antoine Temple never thought it would take the city this long to cut him a check.
The retired New Orleans Fire Department captain recalls the time decades ago when he and his colleagues launched a legal fight to collect the state-ordered raises they thought they were due. Though the courts have sided with the firefighters on just about every occasion since then, it long seemed that no mayor would honor New Orleans’ obligations.
“It got to be a political football,” Temple said in a recent interview. “I think several mayors took the tack of, ‘They didn’t resolve it; why should I?’ Just kick the can down the road.”
But that all changed last year, when Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the firefighters union reached an accord that — after some concessions were made on both sides — will grant $75 million to Temple and hundreds of other current and former firefighters who have sought payment of the back wages since 1979.
And to Temple's and his colleagues’ delight, a majority of New Orleans voters on Dec. 10 approved a 2.5-mill tax hike that will make fulfilling that promise possible.
The new tax will bring in about $8.9 million annually for firefighters over the next 12 years, with $5 million a year of that going to the back pay and the rest going to the city’s contribution to the firefighters’ pension system.
The $60 million payout is what’s left after the city paid $15 million to the firefighters earlier this year.
“We will have to see how big it is,” Temple chuckled, when asked how he’ll spend the newfound cash. “It may be so small that you just go to dinner a couple of times. Or you may get to go on that nice trip that you were planning.”
Court documents show Temple is owed a total of $132,883. He plans to use part of whatever he gets on “some celebration” with his wife and kids, he said.
The money means an end to the legal wrangling that has stretched across five mayoral administrations between the city and New Orleans Fire Fighters Association Local No. 632. The fight during Landrieu’s tenure was particularly drama-filled, leading at one point to Landrieu nearly being placed under house arrest for disregarding a court order.
The compromise reached in October 2015 required the city to pay the millions it owed in back pay, provided that firefighters forfeited some $67 million more they had sought in accrued interest.
Separately, the firefighters agreed to settle an unrelated suit over Landrieu’s refusal to pay the full amount the city owed to the pension fund during his tenure. The firefighters agreed to concessions that will make the troubled retirement system less generous to new hires.
But key to any agreement was the city’s ability to keep its end of the bargain. And that wouldn’t have been possible without new cash, Landrieu and Fire Department Superintendent Timothy McConnell said at a news conference earlier this month touting the need for the millage.
“This is critical to keeping the services that we have up and running,” McConnell said.
Making their case to the news media was only one strategy used to sway voters who had rejected the tax once before, when it was on an April ballot and was tied with a 5-mill increase for the Police Department that would have helped pay for expanding the NOPD’s diminished ranks.
Officials hoped that separating the fire tax from the larger police levy would brighten the former's prospects this time. Still, with the number 1,832 — the number of votes by which the the combined millages were defeated — on his brain, firefighters union President Nick Felton spent months zeroing in on Lakeview and other parts of the city where the measure had the most trouble in the spring.
“I went door to door. I went person to person. I went group to group,” said Felton, who is due to receive roughly $68,600 in back pay.
The message he heard was clear, he said: “The people wanted the firefighters to get paid.”
And those people turned out in higher numbers this month, a factor that also helped, he said.
The high-profile U.S. Senate runoff between Foster Campbell and John Kennedy helped draw more than 70,000 voters to the polls in Orleans Parish, and almost 60 percent of them endorsed the tax. By contrast, April’s “public safety millage” was joined on the ballot only by a capital improvements bond proposition and drew about a third of December’s turnout.
Retired Fire Captain Joseph Fincher, who records show will collect roughly $151,000, said he had no doubt that people would pull the lever for the city’s first responders.
“Being on the Fire Department is like being part of the Super Bowl team, just because they are such professionals,” Fincher said. “And I think the people of New Orleans recognize that.”
Felton, Fincher and Temple stressed that the money the firefighters are getting and the cash that is bolstering the pension fund do not alleviate what they consider to be the department's other funding concerns, such as the need for more recruits and new equipment.
The amounts that more than 1,100 retired and current firefighters will receive vary depending upon the years they served and the rank they attained. More than 100 of those due to be paid have died, meaning the money will be passed on to their heirs.
Download the PDF, below, to see the list of retired firefighters and their respective payouts.