NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu will not be confined to house arrest this weekend, thanks to Louisiana's Supreme Court.
A last-minute stay issued Friday evening by the state's highest court kept Landrieu from being placed under house arrest as the result of a decades-old legal dispute with city firefighters.
A state appeals court had refused to grant the mayor a stay earlier Friday.
Last week, a state judge ruled that the city was in contempt — and that the mayor would have to spend weekends confined to his home — because the city had yet to come up with a suitable plan to pay $75 million, plus interest, owed to firefighters. Judge Kern Reese had given the city until 5 p.m. Friday to comply.
"I never imagined in my wildest dreams when I became your mayor that I could lose my freedom for doing my job," Landrieu said at a news conference shortly after the court's decision. "I am thankful that we have been vindicated by the Supreme Court."
Landrieu said last week he was prepared to finish out the last two years of his term under house arrest on weekends rather than make a payment that would require drastic cuts in city services, including police and fire protection.
The mayor took office in 2010 at a time when the city was still reeling from the effects of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. He's often touted the economic recovery the city has made during his time in office and painted the repayment the firefighters are demanding as a threat to continued recovery.
"I am looking forward to receiving a reasonable counterproposal from them. It cannot decimate the city's budget," Landrieu said. "We've gotten the city moving in the right direction."
The legal fight dates to 1979, when firefighters sued the city for back pay they say was owed to them under a 1968 state law giving firefighters annual raises based on their years of service.
Since 2006, firefighters have been paid the proper amount, but about 1,100 firefighters are owed back pay, said Nick Felton, the president of the New Orleans Firefighters Local 632. The union has led the fight over back pay.
The firefighters argue the city can and should pay.
"This matter is far from being over," Felton said Friday. "We know the city has money. ... It will not bankrupt the city. It will not cause massive layoffs."
The firefighters are also seeking about $67 million in interest. Successive city administrations have never paid the roughly $142 million in back pay and interest the firefighters say they are owed. The city consistently has lost in court.
In court filings, the firefighters have pointed to the city's budget balance and expected payments of $42 million from BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill settlement as proof the city has the ability to partially pay.
City spokesman Bradley Howard said Friday that the city was working with a mediator, seeking an agreement with firefighters.
Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to reflect that mayor talked about losing his "freedom" not his "job."