PRESCOTT, AZ - Extending full survivors' benefits to the families of 13 seasonal firefighters killed in the line of duty not only would be illegal but it's a cost Prescott cannot afford, city officials said Wednesday.
The city released estimates showing the price tag would top $50 million over 60 years and lead to cuts in services vital to the public. In the event the city were to pay out the benefits in one lump sum, the cost would be $24 million -- or three times the budget of the entire Prescott Fire Department that employed the Granite Mountain Hotshots.
"It's a significant sum and really a large chunk of the city's annual budget," said city attorney Jon Paladini.
The six other Granite Mountain Hotshots who died June 30 in the Yarnell Hill Fire were classified as full-time employees. Juliann Ashcraft, the widow of one of the 13 seasonal employees, has been pleading for the same benefits their families will get, including health insurance. She and Andrew Ashcraft had four children.
Andrew Ashcraft worked full-time hours, received a pay raise in February and held a supervisory position on the Hotshot crew, but he acknowledged his status as a seasonal employee in documents released by the city. Juliann Ashcraft said he was promised a full-time position, an assertion the city disputes.
"We believe that a full accounting of the facts will show that Andrew served Prescott as a full-time employee and that he earned the right to be treated as one," she wrote in a statement Wednesday.
The city has been criticized and commended for not providing equivalent benefits to the seasonal firefighters. Paladini said doing so would violate a clause in the state constitution that prohibits cities from paying out money to individuals who aren't entitled to it and when there's not a public benefit.
The cost would fall onto the taxpayers of Prescott, which has an annual budget of about $30 million, the city said.
"You have an obligation to the taxpayers of the city, and you can't make decisions on emotion," Paladini said. "You have to base it on facts. We felt it was important to put the factual information out there."
The city on Wednesday also canceled a meeting scheduled for next week to discuss the future of the Granite Mountain Hotshots that it has committed to rebuilding. The city said it needs to figure out its financial future before reassembling the crew.
It expects to contribute almost $375,000 more per year to the state public safety personnel retirement system as a result of the firefighters' deaths and see its insurance payments rise. Paladini said changes also might come in the way firefighters are insured in the future and in benefits their families are entitled to should they lose their lives on the job.
Juliann Ashcraft, the widow of fallen firefighter Andrew Ashcraft, released the following statement in response to the city's news release Wednesday:
Every day, it seems, the City of Prescott dribbles out a few more documents and fulltime fire fighter and, thus, that our four children and our family deserve nothing at all in benefits from the City of Prescott.
Let me again say what I have said all along: That beyond the City's few sheets of paper, there exists a set of facts that speak to Andrew's full-time work for the City of Prescott. Andrew averaged more than 70 hours a week working for the City for all of 2012. He held a supervisory position on the hot shot crew and he was given a raise to full-time pay in February of this year. He received verbal assertions that his promotion a done deal. And he filled what previously had been an approved full-time, fully benefited position.
We believe that a full accounting of the facts will show that Andrew served Prescott as a full-time employee and that he earned the right to be treated as one.
I'm sorry that the City of Prescott leadership feels it necessary to drag out this fight in the media, with one press release after another. I hope sometime soon they begin to respond with some compassion, instead of ignoring my repeated requests to meet and speaking to me only through press releases and negative attacks.