Charities receive $11M for Yarnell firefighters

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- The chairman of an Arizona House committee examining how to provide equal benefits to part-time members of a firefighting crew who died in June said they'll likely have to look to charities to fill the gap because of a state constitutional ban on gifts of public funds.

That shouldn't be difficult because charities have already raised more than $11 million since 19 firefighters died in the Yarnell Hill fire in June, said Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, who led a meeting of the House Public Safety, Military and Regulatory Affairs Committee on Tuesday. He believes once the committee comes up with an amount needed to treat the part-time workers' families equally, private funds will quickly be raised.

The inequity between the part-time and full-time members of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots has angered the survivors of the part-time employees.

Of the 13 part timers, five had wives and children who won't receive health benefits like the full timers, and also won't receive a lifetime pension payment equal to the firefighters' yearly pay.

They will receive many of the other benefits, including a one-time federal death benefit of $328,000, workmen's compensation pay and free tuition at state universities.

The average ongoing yearly benefit for the full-time firefighters is $112,000, compared to $25,000 for the part timers who left immediate survivors.

The 100 Club, which supports fallen police and firefighters, has raised $4.3 million, although it has spent $1.7 million on the memorial service, burial expenses and support to wives, girlfriends and children of the fallen, executive director Sharon Knutson-Felix said. That leaves about $2.6 million earmarked for members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

Two Prescott-based charities have collected $6.3 million, and another group nearly $460,000 for an education fund for the firefighters' children and their families. A committee is examining how to split the funds and expects to begin disbursements early next year.

The donations "far exceed anything we've seen before," Knutson-Felix told the committee. "I wish the outpouring was the same for every firefighter and police officer."

House Speaker Andy Tobin urged the committee at its first meeting last month to quickly come up with a plan to pay full survivor and other benefits to the part-time firefighters.

He also wanted the committee to craft a plan to help Yarnell rebuild and to pay costs for Prescott.

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.

Pierce's focus is on making sure that future part-time public safety workers don't face the same issue. That may include laws that require all public safety workers to be in the state's public safety retirement plan, or it may include a catastrophic coverage plan that would provide equal death benefits for those who die on duty.

"What we don't want to do is have to do this again," Pierce said, referring to off-session hearings to deal with the consequences of a tragedy.

The committee also unveiled draft legislation to acquire the site about a miles east of Yarnell where the firefighters died and create a permanent memorial.

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