Lawmakers hear Tobin plan to pay fire survivors

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- House Speaker Andy Tobin urged a legislative committee Tuesday to quickly come up with a plan to pay full survivor and other benefits to the 13 part-time firefighters who were among 19 killed in the Yarnell Hill wildfire.

Tobin testified that the state should help Yarnell rebuild and pay costs Prescott is facing and craft it quickly. If the Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee can craft such a plan he hopes Gov. Jan Brewer can call a special legislative session.

The full cost of the plan isn't yet known, but Prescott alone faces a $5.2 million payment to the state's public safety retirement system for the payouts for six full-time members covered by the system. Other costs include $6 million for other agency aid to fight the fire, and up to $20 million to rebuild Yarnell's aging water system, which was damaged by heavy fire trucks.

The survivors of full-time members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots will continue to receive their salaries from the public safety retirement system, while part-time members will receive only a small percentage based on their contributions to the regular state retirement system. The regular state retirement only paid out about $86,000 in total benefits to the survivors, officials said.

The part-timers also didn't get health benefits and their survivors don't qualify now.

Rep. Justin Pierce, who chairs the committee, said Tuesday's meeting is the first of several which will delve into the issue and try to develop a plan. He and other members of the committee made it clear they plan to help the families of the firefighters.

The Yarnell Hill fire was sparked by lightning June 28, and trapped Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30 as it barreled toward Yarnell. The fire burned 13 square miles of brush and consumed more than 100 homes before it was controlled July 12.

Recordings of 911 calls released Tuesday by the Yavapai County Attorney's Office revealed that so many people had called in to report smoke and flames on the first day that dispatchers couldn't transfer them all to local fire departments. The dispatchers had to take down names and numbers at times, promising the callers that someone would be in touch.

Tobin said he was concerned that providing the benefits retroactively could trigger the state's constitutional ban on gifts of public funds, but one way around that might be to allow taxpayers to voluntarily contribute to a fund.

"If Arizona says `yes we have responsibility on state land,' I find it difficult to not somehow go back to the beneficiaries on June 30," he said. "The very reason we're having this conversation is because of what happened on June 30."