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Rescue-worker death benefit advances
Legislation given initial approval gives McNamara family an annuity
By John J. Monahan TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
[email protected]




BOSTON- Nearly two years after Lancaster call firefighter Martin H. McNamara died in an apartment fire in Clinton, the House yesterday approved a bill that would provide his wife and children with a $650,000 annuity, and mandate that all communities provide a minimum $500,000 death benefit to volunteer and call firefighters, emergency medical technicians and police who die in the line of duty.

Some 250 cities and towns in the state rely on call and volunteer firefighters and emergency personnel, but most have not had insurance for them, or provided for such benefits, in the past.

Under the bill passed in the House yesterday and expected to be before the Senate next Tuesday, cities and towns would be required to have provisions in place for such death benefits within one year.

Although the measure got unanimous support in the House, questions about the imposition of a new state mandate on cities and towns and possible opposition from full-time firefighter unions could result in some changes in the bill when it is reviewed in the Senate next week.

Sen. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre, said while he supports the annuity for the McNamara family in the House bill, the mandate on local communities may raise some concerns when the Senate Ways and Means Committee reviews the bill. Whether the mandate included in the House bill could be modified to include provisions for some communities to "opt out," he said, "remains to be seen."

Rep. James B. Eldridge, D-Acton, who said the McNamara family had gone for more than two years without adequate financial support, added that, "if this ever happens again, the towns and cities where those volunteer firefighters, police officers and EMS personnel currently work or live," will take care of their families.

Rep. Harold P. Naughton, D-Clinton, who is leaving the Legislature for six months' active reserve duty in Iraq this weekend, said yesterday he was relieved to see the House adopt the measure to correct what he called "a flaw" in the law before he left for foreign duty.

Mr. Naughton and Mr. Eldridge filed the amendment to include the annuity for the McNamara family in the legislation yesterday.

"It's been a long road for the call firefighters of the commonwealth and a very, very long road for the McNamara family," Mr. Naughton said when he urged House members to support the measure. If approved in the Senate and signed by the governor, the bill will provide the McNamara family, his wife Clare and three young daughters, with a $23,000 annual pension that will be paid for by the state.

The "McNamara" bill would require cities and towns to provide an annuity equal to at least two-thirds of the salary of the first-year full-time firefighter in surrounding towns or an annuity equal to a minimum of $500,000 indexed for inflation in future years.

"We will make sure that the families will be protected, like we did for the Worcester Six and the 343 in New York City," who died on 9-11, Mr. Naughton said.

In an emotional appeal, Mr. Naughton recounted that the final fire call responded to by Mr. McNamara, whose father, grandfather and great grandfather were all firefighters, was the third fire call he left home for on the night of Nov. 29, 2003.

Mr. Naughton said Mr. McNamara, "left his house and a warm bed, his children and a beautiful bride to go out to put his life at risk for the lives of others in a fire in a multifamily tenement.

"He didn't ask any questions, went down into the cellar, ahead of him a professional firefighter, behind him a professional firefighter. No one asked what his status was. The fire didn't distinguish the fact that he was a call firefighter," the lawmaker said, noting that full-time firefighters are all provided with death benefits that most of the state's 6,900 call firefighters have not been provided in the past.

Numerous lawmakers have taken up the cause of addressing what they saw as a gap in the law to protect volunteer emergency personnel, and the final version of the bill would extend death benefits as well to approximately 1,870 volunteer EMS personnel, 572 fire department-based volunteer EMS personnel and approximately 2,247 auxiliary and reserve police officers in the state.

Rep. Jay R. Kaufman, D-Lexington, co-chairman of the Public Service Committee, said cities and towns will have three options to comply if the bill becomes law, and that it would be only the third law to date that would not allow Proposition 2-1/2 exemptions for communities.

He said they could either provide an annuity, purchase an insurance policy, or purchase a group annuity policy to cover emergency volunteers. Lancaster town administrator Orlando Pacheco said since Mr. McNamara's death the town of 8,000, which has 23 call firefighters, has made provisions for a $300,000 benefit for any future line-of-duty call firefighter deaths at an annual cost of about $26,000. Lawmakers estimated a $500,000 benefit or annuity plan would cost a community about $40,000 per year.



 

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FUNDING OF HOUSE-APPROVED PUBLIC SAFETY DEATH BENEFIT CHALLENGED

By Amy Lambiaso
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
[email protected]

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, SEPT. 21, 2005…..A proposal to extend death benefits
to volunteer firefighters and police killed in the line of duty may be in
jeopardy because critics say it imposes an unfunded mandate on cities and
towns.
The bill, which passed unanimously in the House on Tuesday, would likely
lead to higher property taxes in smaller communities and undermines a state
law aimed at preventing the state from passing on new directives to
municipalities without simultaneously providing financial support.

Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal
Association, which lobbies for cities and towns on Beacon Hill, said the
association will oppose the bill because it would impose an unfair burden
on municipalities that already rely heavily on property taxes to pay bills.
"If the state wants to mandate expanded benefits, we would urge them to do
so with state funds as is required by Proposition 2 ½," Beckwith said. "If
the state wishes to sidestep its obligation under the anti-mandate
provisions of state law, the bill should be a local option, or the state
should wait until it has adequate funds to pay for it."
Under the ballot law known as Proposition 2 ½, the state cannot impose
mandates on cities and towns without providing money to carry out new
requirements. The bill that cleared the House Tuesday contains language
exempting it from that law, but critics say they'll continue to fight the
legislation.

One of the bill's architects said that although it is an unfunded mandate,
it is warranted.
"This is a requirement for cities and towns to take care of their own,"
said Rep. James Eldridge (D-Acton). "And if that's considered an unfunded
mandate, then I guess that's what it is. But it's the least we can expect
of cities and towns - to take care of their own."
In Massachusetts, the state Auditor's Division of Local Mandates is charged
with protecting cities and towns from unfunded mandates. Glenn Briere,
spokesman for Auditor Joseph DeNucci, said the auditor had not yet reviewed
the legislation, but believes this is a worthy benefit to offer.
The auditor's office has the discretion to review state laws, or does so at
the request of others. Then, the auditor issues a report or finding on
whether a law is considered an unfunded mandate. Such a report can be used
as evidence in a court challenge. Briere said the auditor has been in
contact with lawmakers regarding the issue.
Sen. Robert Antonioni (D-Leominster), the chief sponsor of the death
benefits bill in the Senate, said he is aware that critics are calling it
an unfunded mandate.

"One way or another we are going to address it," Antonioni said. "It'll
come up."
Antonioni said the Senate is likely to debate the bill next Tuesday during
its formal session. One option to address the concerns, he said, would be
to allow cities and towns to opt out of the plan, with the caveat that
those communities not participating could not seek state assistance in the
event of a tragedy.
"This cannot happen again," he said, referring to the tragedy in Lancaster
that gave rise to the legislative action. Clinton Firefighter Martin
McNamara was killed in a 2003 fire in Lancaster, leaving behind a wife and
two children. Because McNamara was a volunteer firefighter, he did not pay
into the state's retirement system and therefore his family did not receive
a death benefit after his death.
Under the House bill, municipalities would be required to provide one of
three accidental death benefits to surviving spouses of volunteer
firefighters and police officers. Those options could be an annuity of
between two-thirds and 100 percent of the pay of first-year full-time
firefighters and police officers, an insurance policy that pays a one-time
accidental death benefit of $500,000, or paying that one-time death benefit
through existing funds.
Paul Cohen, town administrator for Harvard, said the town offers a $500,000
insurance policy for families of volunteer firefighters, police and other
emergency personnel killed in the line of duty. That policy comes at an
annual cost of $30,000 to the town, he said.
Barbara Anderson, executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation, also
said the state should be funding the plan. "Certainly if the state wants
to do this, the state should be funding it," she said. "While this seems
like a reasonable idea, I think the state should look for the cooperation
of cities and towns instead of trying to make them pay for it."

- END -
 
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