Our Views: Louisiana should focus on 'middle skill' jobs that don't require four-year degree _lowres

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZ--New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu talks at the dedication celebration of the new University Medical Center in New Orleans, La. Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.

With a judge threatening to place him under house arrest on weekends, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has taken to the airwaves, using radio ads to cast the New Orleans firefighters union as intransigent in their dispute with the city over back pay and pension benefits.

Landrieu’s administration is apparently still far from a deal with the firefighters that would resolve a court judgment ordering the city to pay $75 million in back wages and another $67 million in interest.

The mayor is asking Civil District Court Judge Kern Reese — who held the mayor in contempt of court last week and threatened to impose house arrest on him if the case isn’t resolved by Friday — to put the contempt order on hold while he pursues an appeal.

Both sides met with a mediator Wednesday afternoon, but firefighter officials said nothing was resolved.

In an email to supporters titled “House Arrest,” the mayor said Wednesday that he is running a radio ad to explain his side of the case.

“Paying what the union demands — even over 10 years — would mean slashing funding to basic services like recreation and fixing potholes, property tax increases of nearly 10 percent or hundreds of layoffs,” Landrieu says in the ad. “I will not let us go backwards on all the progress we have worked so hard for.”

The ad is the mayor’s first on the issue, but firefighters have been making their own case for months with television ads and protests calling for the administration to pay up.

Last week, Landrieu told reporters that he would stay under house arrest on weekends for the rest of his term rather than agree to a deal he characterized as devastating for the city.

The ad takes a similar tone.

“The firefighters union claims the city owes them over $400 million over the next 10 years,” Landrieu said. “While I disagree with that number, I am committed to pay what’s owed. However, I will NOT bankrupt the city to do so.”

The $400 million figure combines judgments from two separate court cases involving the city and the firefighters, though Landrieu has insisted that both be settled with one overarching agreement.

The so-called “longevity suit,” which prompted Reese’s order, involves decades-old claims that the city never gave firefighters raises required by state law. The other, more recent case involves Landrieu’s decision to cut annual payments to the firefighters’ pension system.

In the ad, Landrieu points to “five reasonable plans” he says the union rejected. That includes two put forward by the administration in recent weeks as Reese has stepped up pressure for a deal. One would have paid the firefighters only $45 million of the money they were owed; the other would have paid $75 million but stretched those payments out over 30 years.

Firefighters also rejected three other plans, developed earlier this year by a task force convened by the Business Council of New Orleans and the River Region, that would have meant giving up some of the money the city agrees it owes.

All five of those plans also are tied to changes in the way the pension system handles benefits, with a promise from the city to properly pay into the fund in the future.

Firefighters union president Nick Felton said Wednesday evening that only the city attorney showed up for the mediation session Wednesday afternoon, and he accused the mayor of taking the time to cut an ad rather than negotiate.

“Instead of wanting to resolve the matters at hand, he wants to fight,” Felton said.

A city spokesman said Chief Administrative Officer Andy Kopplin was in communication with the meeting by phone and two City Council members were present.

The council, which will have to approve any eventual deal with the firefighters, discussed the issue during a lengthy closed-door session Wednesday morning. The members did not take any action at the meeting and, with the exception of a prepared statement read by President Jason Williams, declined to say exactly what was discussed, citing the ongoing lawsuits.

“Everyone understands this is a very serious matter,” Williams said, adding that it was important to “have full and complete dialogue with all members of the council present so we could weigh everyone’s input.”

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.