Originally Published: January 27, 2018 6:02 a.m.
When 19 of Prescott’s Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013, they were defending state land.
That is a point that State Sen. Karen Fann, R-Prescott, stresses in the bill she introduced this week seeking $7.5 million in state money to help cover Prescott’s pension costs for the fallen Hotshots’ survivors.
“God bless our wonderful 19, and we miss them,” Fann said Thursday, Jan. 25, “but they were fighting a fire on State Trust Land.”
She maintains it is unfair for the taxpayers of Prescott to bear the full burden for the Hotshots’ pensions when the crew was “protecting Arizona, and fighting a fire that was not even in Prescott.”
That was also the reasoning behind a similar appropriation that the Arizona Legislature approved in 2013, after the Hotshot tragedy.
At that time, Fann said she and former Prescott Rep. Andy Tobin and former Sen. Steve Pierce worked on the bill that ultimately dedicated $5 million toward the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) pensions for the six fallen Hotshots who had been permanent employees with the city.
Although the cost for the six pensions was estimated at $5 million at that time, Fann said the actual cost has turned out to be several million dollars higher.
The 2013 bill devoted $1 million per year for five years toward the city’s pension costs. The final payment will take place in the coming year, Fann said.
Meanwhile, four families of Hotshots who had been considered by the city to be seasonal employees, and therefore not eligible for PSPRS, won claims with the city for pension benefits.
Fann pointed out that the four new beneficiaries have added to the city’s costs with the PSPRS, as has the additional cost for the first six.
In all, Fann said, “$12.5 million is what it cost Prescott for the PSPRS.” To cover that, her bill is seeking $7.5 million in addition to the original $5 million.
The bill, which Fann said she introduced at the state Legislature on Thursday, Jan. 25, proposes that the $7.5 million be paid to the PSPRS to go toward the city’s pension liability.
In December, the city reported that its current unfunded liability with the PSPRS stands at $86.4 million. That number is expected to drop significantly next year because of an $11.6 million city payment toward the liability in late 2017, as well as the voter-approved 0.75-percent sales that went into effect Jan. 1, 2018, with the revenues dedicated to the pension debt.
The state appropriations bill came up at the Tuesday, Jan. 23, Prescott City Council meeting, when the city’s management analyst, Tyler Goodman, reported that Fann’s bill was pending.
In response to a question from Mayor Greg Mengarelli about the prospect for passage of the bill, Goodman said, “I think because it was such a large impact to our community and statewide, I think it has a good chance, but it is a lot of money.”
Still, Mengarelli said, “It’s a tough ‘no’ vote.”
Although noting that it is still early in the process, Fann said she is hopeful that the legislature will see the need for state help.
“I’m pretty confident everybody will agree that this was a state responsibility,” Fann said. “The issue will be with ‘where do you find the money when there are so many other issues, including education?’”
Fann expects the first and second readings of the bill to occur at the legislature on Monday, Jan. 29, after which it would be assigned to a legislative committee for review.