Paul Murphy / Eyewitness News
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NEW ORLEANS -- Officials from the New Orleans Firefighters' Union say this week they met with Mayor Mitch Landrieu and some of his top staff to discuss possible common ground in the long simmering feud over the troubled Firefighters Pension and Relief Fund.

The administration says the pension fund now threatens to undermine the city budget and promises made to retirees.

A recent study by the independent Bureau of Governmental Research indicates the fund is in serious financial distress.

'First of all when we looked at it, it was only 40 percent funded. Now according to the city, that's down to 33 percent,' said BGR Executive Director Janet Howard. 'Rule of thumb, you have to be at least 80 percent funded to be considered sound.'

The city is behind a series of bills at the state legislature seeking to overhaul the pension system.

Among the goals: Reducing the number of pension board members to five -- including a financial expert from the city; increasing firefighter contributions from the current 6 percent to 10 percent of their salary; and possibly folding the firefighter pension fund into the city's own retirement system.

'Wholesale changes to any pension fund will be difficult,' said Nick Felton, the firefighters union president. 'We as a fire pension board have done over the years extremely well. We just can't take a snapshot, one-day picture and use that as true to fact.'

Felton says his members are willing to put more into the pot if the money goes to pay down the unfunded liability.

'Right now insurance costs are going up and just the cost of living itself is going up. It is very difficult to express to firefighters that need.'

State Rep. Jeff Arnold, D-Algiers, is sponsoring a series of union-backed bills. One of them would phase in the increases over four years.

'So it's not a big hit to their take-home pay because every percent you put into contributions is 1 percent less you're taking home to spend,' said Arnold.

The fire union hopes to reach a compromise with the city before the pension bills are debated by lawmakers.

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