NEW ORLEANS (AP) - While most local governments fighting a boost
in their share of firefighters' retirement pay are paying the
increases, some will face hefty bills when a Louisiana Supreme
Court ruling goes into effect.
The high court upheld a law which sets firefighters' and the
state's shares of the Firefighters' Retirement System at a fixed
percentage of salaries, leaving local governments to shoulder any
increases.
It's a burden but a constitutional one: the Legislature, not the
courts, would have to change it, the justices ruled Wednesday in a
lawsuit brought by the Louisiana Municipal Association and joined
by 68 local governments.
Most of those governments and a group which did not join the
lawsuit have been paying the higher bills as they came in, said
Steven Stockstill, director of and legal counsel for the
Firefighters' Retirement System.
However, about one-quarter have continued to pay the 9 percent
starting rate, under a state court order freezing the rate at that
figure.
When the Supreme Court's ruling takes effect, they will be
billed for the increases, which have risen in several steps to 21
percent, plus interest, Stockstill said.
"Just for the fiscal year '03-'04 - just for that fiscal year -
it was $7.6 million," he said, emphasizing that both that number
and the fraction of governments involved were ballpark figures.
The ruling won't take effect immediately. Louisiana Municipal
Association executive director Tom Ed McHugh said the court will be
asked to reconsider the case which could take several weeks.
If it stands, the ruling would also mean almost certain defeat
for a similar lawsuit against increases being paid for the larger
Louisiana Municipal Police Employees' Retirement System.
The LMA and local governments had sued both systems, saying it
was unconstitutional to dump all increases on them. Many
governments have said they can't afford the contribution. Since
it's a percentage of officers' pay, layoffs are the only way to
reduce it.
Even while finding the law constitutional, the high court
acknowledged that the higher contributions could seriously hurt
local governments.
In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Pascal Calogero said the
system imposes a burden "that could easily become insurmountable
in the coming years. In fact," he wrote, "the system today
presents a threat to the fiscal integrity and survival" of many of
the governments which joined the lawsuit.
Stockstill said the fund covers 4,924 firefighters - 3,431 of
them active, 1,379 retired and 114 in a third category, in 101
municipalities and parishes. It does not include New Orleans or
Baton Rouge, which have their own retirement systems.
The Louisiana Municipal Police Employees' Retirement System
covers more than 150 departments with 9,500 full-time officers.
"We went into court knowing there would be no winners," McHugh
said Wednesday.
The court's decision was split over several aspects of the
complex issues, with dissents by Justice Jeannette Knoll and
retired Judge Walter L. Lanier, sitting in for Justice Bernette
Johnson.
Knoll warned that "the absurd consequences" from the
majority's interpretation of the case will cause local
municipalities to severely cut, if not eliminate, fire protection.
Both Calogero and the majority decision written by Justice Chet
Traylor pointed out that the Legislature has the authority and
power to fix it - by appropriating more money, tapping tax sources,
or adjusting the required contributions.
Several attempts to do just that have failed over the past few
years.
Stockstill said the Legislature found money to cover the first
year of the increases, which started in 2000.
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On the Net:
http://www.lafirefightersret.com/
http://www.lsprs.state.la.us/

(Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)