In New Orleans, the Debts Pile Up After Losses to Firefighters and Fired White Employees

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Always one step ahead of the debt collector, New Orleans will find its bills only getting steeper, with receipts payable rolling in from courthouses, state and federal, and another one likely on the way.

It looked bad for the beleaguered city last week when a federal court jury gave District Attorney Eddie Jordan's fired white employees $1.9 million. It looked far worse this week when a local judge told the city to pay around $10 million, and potentially nearly $200 million, to aggrieved firefighters who sued for back pay and benefits.

And a crowning blow could follow in coming weeks, if Jordan's ex-workers are handed another big chunk of cash, as their lawyers expect. Already awarded back pay by the jury, the judge in the case could well give them what's known as ''front pay'' as well -- money to help them get back on their feet.

For one of America's poorest cities, at the mercy of rickety finances, a perennially shrinking tax base, and a politicized property-tax collection mechanism, none of it is good news.

It comes on top of what isn't news at all for New Orleans, that it has been in hock to the tune of millions of dollars in unpaid court judgments over accidents, police brutality cases, and other city liabilities.

Last month the city sent out letters offering to pay $15 million of the approximately $22 million it owes, giving people with claims the option of settling for some 75 cents on the dollar now.

The bill to the firefighters alone, paid all at once, would mean shutting down one-fifth of City Hall, officials said. Nobody would be exempt except the police. Back pay owed by New Orleans could add up to as much as a third of the city's budget. ''I'm sure it's going to be a strain,'' said a lawyer for the city, Joseph DiRosa, Jr.

The bill to the firefighters at least has been looming for years. The money owed by Jordan, popping up last week, was a shocker.

New Orleans' first black district attorney was found to have intentionally discriminated against 43 white investigators, clerks and other support workers when he replaced them with blacks. The final bill could well be much more than $1.9 million.

The mayor has put together a citizens' committee to ponder a resolution.