Raises OK'd Only for New Orleans Rookie Firefighters


Updated: 08-24-2006 12:06:39 PM


FRANK DONZE
Times-Picayune



It took the New Orleans Civil Service Commission just minutes Wednesday to approve a proposal by Mayor Ray Nagin to raise salaries for all police officers by 10 percent and boost the paltry annual starting pay for rookie firefighters by several thousand dollars.

But a debate over the thornier question of how to compensate veteran firefighters, left out of the mayor's plan, dragged on for more than an hour with no resolution.

The commission, the first stop for City Hall pay matters, gave its unanimous support to the Nagin initiative, which his administration has said is designed to slow an escalating post-Katrina exodus of police officers and to attract more fire recruits. The salary package now goes to the City Council, which is expected to give final approval to the pay increases as soon as next week.

While Civil Service commissioners accepted the police pay raise as submitted, they reduced the size of the salary increase for fire recruits recommended by Nagin. The commission made the adjustment because the proposed $5,300 increase would have pushed the starting hourly wage for a Fire Department trainee higher than what a first-year firefighter earns.

Instead, the plan sent on to the council recommends boosting a recruit's salary by $3,977, which would increase a rookie's annual pay from $15,919, or $5.10 an hour, to $19,896, or $8.31 an hour.

Even with the bump in pay, fire union officials reminded commissioners that the starting salary for firefighters is still less than what fast food restaurant workers earn in New Orleans.

Representatives of New Orleans Fire Fighters Local 632 also noted that the Nagin plan offers nothing for their members who are still dealing with personal travails, like the loss of their homes to Katrina's floodwaters, a year after the storm.

Nagin has steadfastly defended his proposal, saying the Police Department has been hit harder by post-Katrina attrition than the Fire Department and emergency medical workers, whom he also excluded from the pay-raise plan. The mayor also said he fears that the police force could shrink even further as other law enforcement agencies, such as the State Police, aggressively recruit in New Orleans.

Nagin also has pointed out that firefighters, unlike other municipal workers, benefit from a state-mandated, 2 percent annual pay increase that kicks in after three years on the job. Nagin cited the so-called longevity raises as his reason for leaving firefighters out of a citywide pay increase in 2003.

The fire union tackled that issue head on Wednesday, telling Civil Service officials that the 2 percent pay raises cease after a firefighter reaches 23 years on the job. As a result, union attorney Louis Robein said 47 percent of the firefighters now on the payroll will receive no increase in pay this year.

While Civil Service officials did not dispute Robein's contention, they said they could not address the question of pay raises for veteran firefighters because the matter was not before them.

And before any serious debate can begin, Commission Chairman William Forrester said the union and the Nagin administration must sit down and determine the financial impact of a court-ordered, back-pay settlement with firefighters that's expected to cost City Hall tens of millions of dollars.

The back pay dispute, which has spanned four mayoral administrations, centers on the city's earlier failure to follow the state law that mandates the longevity pay increases.

The bulk of the money owed, as much as $150 million, is lump-sum payments ranging from as little as a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand dollars that are due to about 1,000 current and retired firefighters or their heirs to cover lost raises going back to 1990.

A separate issue that Forrester said the city must first address is how to compensate firefighters for the accumulated raises that would add as much as $10 million to the $50 million the city spends annually on firefighter salaries.

Robein has estimated that some veteran firefighters are looking at pay raises ranging from 5 percent to up to 30 percent, going forward.

"Until we get that squared away," Forrester said, "it's premature to look at a modified pay plan" for all firefighters.

Union President Nick Felton said efforts to finalize the settlement have gone nowhere because the Nagin administration has refused to sit down with him since Katrina.

Chief Deputy City Attorney Joseph DiRosa Jr., who has been handling the case for the city, countered that the fire union has failed to provide all the information needed to calculate the settlement's impact on individual firefighters' paychecks.

Asked by Forrester if the cash-strapped city has a strategy to allocate money to pay the settlement, DiRosa said "yes." But he quickly added, "I'm not a party to those discussions."

In the end, Civil Service Commissioner Jerry Davis implored the administration and the union to quickly resolve all pending issues so the commission's staff can at least begin working on a pay plan to implement the back-pay settlement.

Forrester asked both sides to make a good faith effort to report back at the commission's Sept. 18 meeting with an estimate of how much the city can afford to spend on the settlement and what the union is willing to accept.

Arguing that a continuing failure to resolve the dispute could ultimately drive veteran firefighters out of the department, Commissioner Blaine LeCesne urged all parties to work out their differences.

"We have to bring this to a close," LeCesne said. "The public is at risk."

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Frank Donze can be reached at or (504) 826-3328.

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