Gov. Jan Brewer needs to “just say NO” to a proposed special session and current demands for increased benefits for the families of the 13 part-time Prescott firefighters killed last June in the Yarnell Hill Fire. The families of the six full-time fire fighters killed will receive different benefit amounts due to full-time employment status.s
Brewer is getting pressure from Speaker of the House Andy Tobin, R-Prescott, widows and the Arizona Republic — the state’s largest newspaper.
Tobin, who is exploring a run for Congress, wants to provide the families of the part-timers increased benefits. One report I read said the price tag could be as high as $52 million.
The part-timers didn’t pay into the underfunded Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and aren’t legally eligible benefits from the system. Employers currently pay upwards to 30 percent of a public safety employee’s wages into the system while employees contribute 9.55 percent.
The Arizona Republic reported in its Aug. 14 story — “Prescott official: Law prohibits full benefits for 13 part-timers” — Prescott City Attorney Jon Paladini said the city cannot provide “equivalent” benefits, including health insurance, to relatives of the seasonal employees. Any move to provide extra benefits for the 13 seasonal employees would violate the Gift Clause of the state Constitution, which prohibits cities from providing “inordinate public benefits.”
The Arizona Republic reported on July 23 an “estimated $7 million has been raised, $368,000 per family, to be given to the 19 families of the fallen firefighters.” Private fundraising efforts continue. Each family will also receive $328,000 from the federal government. Surviving spouses and dependents will be eligible for Social Security and Industrial Commission survivor’s benefits.
Prescott is part of a statewide self-insurance pool of 77 cities, and insurance costs for the entire group will increase because of the firefighters’ deaths. Prescott and the group are also looking at future lawsuits and claims from survivors for an array of reasons including wrongful death (read more at evtnow.com/5qz).
Before the fire deaths, there were questions why Prescott would even venture into the hot shot fire crew business. The Prescott Granite Mountain Hot Shots were the only municipal hot shot crew in the United States. Questions are now being raised if Prescott really needs or can afford another hot shot crew (read more at evtnow.com/5r0).
The issue of part-time and volunteer public safety first responders is a statewide issue that goes well beyond Prescott and needs to be addressed by city, county and state lawmakers and the governor.
According to FEMA, in Arizona there are 249-registered fire departments. More than 23 percent of the state’s firefighters are considered “career” employees by FEMA; 17.5 percent are classified as mostly career; 26.8 percent are mostly volunteer; and 32.5 percent are all volunteer fire fighters. http://evtnow.com/5r1.
There are also hundreds of reserve police officers, deputy sheriffs, state troopers, sheriff’s posse members and volunteers serving in law enforcement agencies throughout Arizona who, along with most of Arizona’s firefighters, don’t have full-time benefits should tragedy hit.
Not only will they not get full-time benefits, I doubt the survivors of the average reserve officer, posse member, volunteer or seasonal first responder who is struck down would ever see the hundreds of thousands of dollars in charity given to the Prescott survivors.
While the cries for more benefits for widows and orphans hits an emotional spot, in 2011 the legislature slashed survivor’s benefits to existing and future widows and orphans of Arizona’s fallen police officers and firefighters.
The problem of benefits for the survivor’s of the 13 part-time hot shots and future claims coming from Arizona’s hundreds of other non-career first responders is an extremely complex and costly statewide issue that’s much bigger than the current demands for a special legislative session driven by emotion, politics and the state’s biggest newspaper.
Until the statewide benefit problem can be fully and publicly examined and addressed without bankrupting the state and further depleting the public safety pension system, Gov. Brewer needs to “just say NO” to a special session.
Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.