New Orleans firefighters pension takeover defeated in House

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Nick Felton, president of the New Orleans Firefighters Association, center, along with Richard Hampton, secretary treasurer with the New Orleans Firefighters pension fund, testify in front of the House Committee on Retirement Thursday.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Nick Felton, president of the New Orleans Firefighters Association, center, along with Richard Hampton, secretary treasurer with the New Orleans Firefighters pension fund, testify in front of the House Committee on Retirement Thursday.

The city of New Orleans lost a close fight Thursday night in its bid to take control of a firefighters pension fund that city officials called one of worst-managed systems in the country.

The New Orleans Firefighters Retirement Fund is facing $500 million in liabilities, but has only $200 million in assets.

Speaking before the House Retirement Committee, New Orleans Deputy Mayor Andy Kopplin explained that the fund is a city-only fund, but is controlled entirely by the state Legislature.

He likened it to the firefighters having control of a credit card the city has to pay.

Kopplin further blamed the fund’s overseers for year-after-year cost-of-living increases and a series of bad investments in real estate, golf courses and a bankrupt hedge fund in his argument for a city takeover.

“It’s not a pretty picture,” Kopplin said of the fund.

But pension fund representative Richard Hampton blamed the recent economic meltdown as the main reason the fund is in bad shape.

He further argued the city has a poor track record managing retirement systems and has “cannibalized” similar funds on numerous occasions the years.

“This was a healthy fund until 2008,” Hampton said. “It wasn’t our generous pensions or mismanagement that got us here.”

House Bill 52, which would have given control of the pension fund to the city, died by a single vote.

Two other bills debated as part of a package to overhaul the pension fund passed after some tweaks and a lengthy evening discussion.

All three measures were sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Pearson, R-Slidell.

House Bill 49 changes the membership of the pension fund’s board of trustees from 10 board members to eight. The bill also requires two-thirds of the panel to approve any cost-of-living increase or the granting of a disability pension.

House Bill 50 phases in increased employee contribution rates over three years to put New Orleans firefighters at the same 10 percent contribution rate that city police officers and firefighters around the state pay.