The U.S. Supreme Court won’t block a ruling from the Louisiana Supreme Court in the lawsuit over New Orleans’ firefighters pension fund, leaving Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration with seemingly few options outside of finally coughing up at least some of the $17.5 million that lower courts have ruled the city owes the fund in back payments.
The city could still make a full appeal to the high court. So far, Landrieu’s administration has asked the justices only to put a stay on implementation of the state high court’s decision while lawyers prepare their next filing. But the denial of a stay, handed down this week by Justice Antonin Scalia, doesn’t bode well for an appeal that seems a long shot in any case.
The U.S. Supreme Court takes up fewer than 1 percent of the appeals it receives in any given year, mainly sticking with those involving federal laws or constitutional issues.
The lawsuit revolves around whether Landrieu’s administration violated a state law by allegedly shortchanging the fund over the past four years.
Representatives for the firefighters see the city’s legal strategy as mainly a series of stalling maneuvers at this point. Landrieu’s administration has already twice asked the state Supreme Court to review the case after getting nearly identical adverse rulings from Civil District Court and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeal.
“I have no doubt the mayor will next take his appeal to the Vatican,” quipped Nick Felton, head of the local firefighters union.
Whatever happens with the appeals process, Landrieu is already pursuing a plan B.
A bill in the Legislature, which has passed in the House and is working its way through the Senate, would — if approved by voters statewide — let the City Council ask local voters for a property tax hike. The proposed increase could bring in $31.6 million annually for both police and fire protection.
Landrieu has warned repeatedly that pension obligations, coupled with expensive reforms required at the Police Department and the city’s jail, will put intolerable strain on the budget.
In his appeal to the Supreme Court for a stay, Landrieu raised the alarm again, warning that a denial would “likely result in the cutting of essential city services, the laying off of employees and the endangerment of the city’s ability to comply with federal consent decrees between the city and the Department of Justice.”
And as in previous filings, the administration laid the blame for the potential budget disaster on the previous trustees of the pension fund, citing various investments that went bad and necessitated bigger contributions from the city in order to keep the fund in good standing.
Landrieu has had mixed success trying to win more control over the fund. He made a failed attempt at the Legislature last year to bring it under the jurisdiction of City Hall, rather than a board that is mostly elected by current and former firefighters. But the firefighters’ last vote did appear to go the mayor’s way, replacing the old trustees with those who said they favored taking the fund’s investments in a new direction.