Firefighters' benefits divide northern Ariz. city

AP News
Posted: Aug 13, 2013 11:12 PM
Firefighters' benefits divide northern Ariz. city

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) — In the days after a wildfire killed 19 members of an elite firefighting team, the Arizona city where they were based banded together in a series of moving public memorials and tributes, overwhelmingly united in its support of the men and their families.

That unity quickly has faded since residents learned Prescott is not paying fulltime benefits to all of the families of the firefighters who died June 30.

Now, leaders of the city nicknamed "Everybody's Hometown" are receiving emails that range from vicious to complimentary for not letting emotion get in the way. Grieving widows have lashed out at city leaders in public meetings, news conferences and national TV appearances.

"I was really proud to live in Prescott because you saw people coming together, and now it's just embarrassing," resident Julie Abel said.

The source of the dispute is the fact that 13 of the firefighters were classified as temporary employees and their families are not entitled to full survivors' benefits. As a result, they receive smaller death benefits than the families of the six firefighters classified as fulltime.

The widow of fallen firefighter Andrew Ashcraft brought attention to the issue by making public pleas to city officials, saying her husband worked fulltime hours, was promised a fulltime position and deserved the more lucrative benefits.

"There were 19 men that perished in that fire and for whatever reason, there are people that feel that some of them don't deserve to be treated in a way that the others do," Juliann Ashcraft said at a news conference outside the courthouse.

Division Chief Darrell Willis of the Prescott Fire Department issued a statement Tuesday saying he made no such promise to Andrew Ashcraft and that promotions cannot be based on a verbal commitment by supervisors.

From the city's point of view, the law is clear. The 13 firefighters were not classified as fulltime, and the city said changing the rules after the fact would be illegal and also cost Prescott millions of dollars over the lifetime of the firefighters' dependents.

"It's easy to get emotional and everybody wants to do the right thing, and the city absolutely," said city spokesman Pete Wertheim. "But what is the right thing? Well, for the city it's limited by the law. And we're fully complying with it."

Juliann Ashcraft's attorney, Tom Kelly, said the city of Prescott is oversimplifying legal issues related to Andrew Ashcraft's employment status. Andrew Ashcraft had filled a leadership position that previously was fulltime, and he was making a salary similar to other fulltime employees.

"It's not simply an emotional plea, and it's not simply — from the city's standpoint — a cut-and-dried issue," Kelly said.

Last year, President Barack Obama made federal health insurance benefits available to thousands of temporary wildland firefighters and their families after a South Dakota-based Hotshot crew petitioned for the change. That benefit did not extend to the Granite Mountain Hotshots because the crew was employed by Prescott.

In Arizona, House Speaker Andy Tobin has said he'll introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session to provide benefits retroactively to the Granite Mountain Hotshots and any emergency responder who dies on state lands in the future.

Somewhat lost in the emotion of the debate is that benefits for all the families of the Granite Mountain Hotshots also will include private donations.

Each of firefighters' families will receive a tax-free $328,000 lump sum from the federal government, Social Security benefits, workers compensation and free tuition for their children at Arizona universities. The families of the six fulltime employees also get health insurance, an increased life insurance payment and the men's annual salaries.

Outside organizations and community donations have been filling the families' immediate needs.

The 100 Club of Arizona paid out a minimum of $15,000 in cash to each of the men's families and covered remaining burial expenses and associated travel costs. Of the $3 million the group has taken in so far, more than $1.5 million has been spent, said marketing specialist Ciara Franklin.

The group has paid credit card debt for the lone survivor and can pay the fallen firefighters' bills. Franklin said it is focusing now on compiling a list of needs for the families and covering health insurance premiums for at least a year.

The total raised for the firefighters' families is unknown, but donations haven't ceased.

Fliers in the community highlight barbecues, banquets, a running race and a concert to benefit the men.

Residents struggled with the idea of providing for families whose loved ones risked their lives. None of them factored in the firefighters' benefits packages when they donated food, money or time to help the men's families. With payments from state and federal agencies and donations, "they'll have quite a bit, it sounds like," John Warner said.

Gloria Purce and Abel have written letters to Mayor Marlin Kuykendall expressing their anger over the city's position. The women said he has gone back on statements he made at the firefighters' memorial when he declared the city's everlasting support for men he referred to as sons.

"To disgrace 19 families over money — hold them up in such high regard — then act like penny-pinching fools, it's sad, just really sad," Abel said.