New Orleans Firefighters Union Calls Mayor's Refusal To Sign Contract 'Low Blow'


Updated: 05-09-2006 03:42:40 PM

Trymaine Lee
Times-Picayune (New Orleans)

New Orleans, Louisiana-- Leaders of New Orleans' firefighters union said Monday that Mayor Ray Nagin's refusal to sign what they called a budget-neutral contract negotiated since before Hurricane Katrina has left the Fire Department in a rut of low morale and ill prepared for day-to-day tasks and the upcoming hurricane season.

At a press conference Monday, union President Nick Felton said the 30-year-old collective bargaining agreement between the city and firefighters is in jeopardy.

The contract, which Felton said does not include any added money for firefighter salaries or increased overtime pay, is structured to boost manpower in critical firefighting functions, set strict guidelines for enforcing diversity and anti-discrimination policies and make the department a more effective organization in the face of what could be another devastating hurricane season just weeks away.

"Mayor Nagin has dealt the New Orleans Fire Department another low blow," Felton told reporters on the steps of City Hall. "These are men and women who have given so much. These are simple crumbs we're asking for, a morale boost. I could see the resistance if this contract would be costing the city eight, nine or 10 million dollars. But it's not."

Nagin's office, in a written statement, said it "continues to value the hard work and dedication of our firefighters and the greatest sacrifices they made during and after Hurricane Katrina."

Regarding the yet unsigned contract, the statement said: "The City will continue to review all aspects of the proposed firefighter contract post-Katrina and will work in good faith for a productive outcome that the firefighters will value."

Felton said the new contract had been negotiated by all parties months before the Aug. 29 storm ripped the city, devastating most of the department's firehouses and the homes of many firefighters.

He said all parties involved, including the mayor, members of the department and the city's legal consultants with Phelps Dunbar were pleased with the agreement. The firefighters union membership ratified it before the storm and was set to have it signed by the city. Then Katrina hit.

Felton said the contract was back in the mayor's office by Dec. 3, where it has remained waiting for his signature.

As of Monday, union officials said, there are only three firefighters assigned per truck, one short of what he said is needed to fight fires effectively. The new contract would put a fourth firefighter on each truck, allowing three firefighters to engage a fire while one controls the truck.

Felton said firefighters are also seeking the city's support for better equipment, saying radios are not up to par, that firefighters don't have fresh batteries for their flashlights and that their annual uniform maintenance allowance has been cut in half from $1,000 to $500.

Felton also said federal money guaranteed to help the department repair its buildings and equipment has been held back because until recently the city had not provided the Federal Emergency Management Agency with an accounting of how an initial $103 million grant was spent. Felton said Nagin's foot dragging has placed the department in danger of crumbling under the pressure of what he thinks could be another powerful hurricane season and compromise the department's ability to aid in evacuating the city if need be.

"I just hope we get spared," Felton said of the possibility of another dangerous storm rumbling through New Orleans. "A category 1 or 2 could put us in severe danger."
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Trymaine Lee can be reached at tlee@timespicayune.com or at (504)-826-3301.