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Updated Sep 5, 2013 - 3:36 pm

Arizona legislators to discuss first-responder coverage

PHOENIX -- An Arizona legislative committee plans hearings later this month on a proposal that would give full survivor benefits to relatives of the part-time members of the 19-man firefighting crew killed this summer in a wildfire- an issue that has drawn national attention and divided the city of Prescott.

The proposal from House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, also would help Prescott pay for state retirement system payment increases and other costs triggered by the deaths that nearly wiped out the city's Granite Mountain Hotshots. Tobin said Thursday he hopes the committee can work out a plan that will get quick support from the governor and the full Legislature.

Other parts of the proposal including funding for rebuilding efforts in fire-ravaged Yarnell and reimbursements for agencies that responded to the June fire that killed the 19 firefighters and destroyed more than 100 homes in the town.

``If we have consensus I think we run what we have up to the governor and see if she wants to address part of it, some of it, or all of it now or wait for the regular session,'' Tobin said.

Gov. Jan Brewer has the ability to call the Legislature into a special session at any time. It returns for its 2014 regular session in January.

The Yarnell Hill fire was sparked by lightning June 28, and trapped the 19 members of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots on June 30 as it barreled toward Yarnell. The fire burned 13 square miles of brush before it was controlled July 12.

The costs of the plan aren't yet known, Tobin said Thursday. But they could include millions to replace Yarnell's damaged water system, help Prescott pay its increased liability costs and fund death and health benefits for the 13 part-time members of the crew who were not enrolled in the state public safety retirement system. It includes providing coverage in the future for first-responders who die without benefits.

``It's clear that the city of Prescott alone cannot handle what Speaker Tobin is attempting to do, and we look forward to helping him,'' Prescott spokesman Pete Wertheim said. ``We appreciate him helping the city, and since it was on state land it is an issue that should be handled on the state level and not the city.''

Prescott has been criticized by families of the part-time firefighters for not providing health and full retirement benefits, but the city has said it can't retroactively enroll the firefighters and provide the benefits. Doing so would cost at least $51 million over 60 years, according to a city analysis. It also could run afoul of the state constitution's gift clause.

Tobin said that's a concern for him as well, although it's uncertain. He's asking the House Public Safety, Military & Regulatory Affairs Committee to consider asking the state's citizens to cover the costs though a voluntary donation check-off on their state tax returns to avoid the issue when it meets Sept. 17 to consider his proposal.

Prescott already is responsible for increased retirement system payments of nearly $375,000 next year because of the benefits being paid to the families of the six full-time members. Additional payments to a municipal liability pool fund also are expected.

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