NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - Civil District Judge Kern Reese held the city in contempt Friday, threatening Mayor Mitch Landrieu with house arrest over a long-running money fight with the city's firefighters.
The judge said he would give Landrieu one week to come up with a reasonable plan to pay the city's firefighters before imposing a sentence.
Landrieu and members of the New Orleans City Council were in court when Reese made his ruling.
The mayor said he is extremely disappointed.
"We believe (Reese) is wrong in the law," Landrieu said.
The city plans to appeal the ruling. Landrieu said it undermines the fundamental principles of the U.S. Constitution. He added the city has gone "above and beyond" to settle the issue.
"I am prepared to stay under house arrest for the next two years of my term," Landrieu said during the news conference. He said he would not sacrifice crucial city services or layoff first responders to satisfy Reese's ruling.
Landrieu inherited this fiscal headache that dates back decades, but as the current mayor, it is in his lap.
"We have a shared responsibility to make this right. This firefighters' pension system is one of the worst in the country. We are spending more on pensions then we are on the entire fire department and the firefighters themselves. Over the last ten years they have gambled and lost you, the taxpayers, money," Landrieu said.
The Firefighters Association had filed contempt charges against the city. It alleges the city failed in an agreement to pay nearly $75 million in back wages.
A judge has already ruled the city owes the money to more than 1,000 firefighters or their families.
The city has said the association neglected to find a level headed approach, and paying that amount of money at one time could threaten essential services for citizens.
The city previously offered to pay $15 million of the money upfront and the rest over the next 30 years.
Reese called the plan "absurd." But he expected both sides to come to negotiate a reasonable deal.
Council members were expected to have a settlement plan ready that would funnel $42 million dollars to the firefighters' pension fund. They met Thursday in executive session to discuss the issue.
Since the council holds the purse strings, they could also be held in contempt. It is unclear when or if that ruling will be made.
"Anybody getting arrested is not where we should be going," said New Orleans Firefighters Union President Nick Felton. "Let's strap on the gloves and get in there and make this right for the city. My God, it's been 35 years. It's time to put an end to this."
Felton said they are not trying to bankrupt the city and firefighters will continue to serve citizens as this money battle plays out.
"This does not have to be the one thing that breaks the city's back. There is a reasonable way that firefighters and the citizens of the city can move forward and put this whole matter to rest," Felton said.
Councilwoman Stacy Head released the following statement late Friday afternoon:
"The administration and the City Council have worked diligently to resolve long-standing disputes with some New Orleans firefighters. These disputes involve an outstanding judgment as well as reforming their pension system that was poorly managed and provided irrational benefits. My hope has been that with the intense effort that has been put in to resolve these disputes, we could improve the health of the pension system, pay outstanding judgments to the firefighters and other judgment creditors, and fund our city services without the need for a drastic tax increase. These negotiations have been progressing toward a sustainable, long-term solution, and I am shocked that the local state Court has taken what I believe to be a flawed legal position that tramples on the separation of powers, provides politically convenient support for a golden parachute retirement system, and attempts to deprive the people of New Orleans of city services they desperately deserve."