Buckhorn wants higher death benefits for family of slain officers

Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants to increase the death benefits paid to widows and survivors of Tampa police officers and firefighters who are killed in the line of duty.

He has asked city staff to draft legislation for consideration in the next legislative session that would, if approved by state lawmakers, increase the death benefits to 65 percent of annual take-home pay at the time of their passing. Currently, the city pays 50 percent.

"These people made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the city and its citizens," Buckhorn said. "This is the least we can do for those who paid so much, and continue to pay."

If approved, the changes will be retroactive, meaning that 21 spouses of police officers and firefighters receive benefits would get the additional money, which will come from a mix of city revenue and increased pension contributions by police and firefighters.

Buckhorn pointed out that police officers and firefighters who are injured while on duty get more in disability pay 55 percent than the families of their fallen comrades.

"We have officers out with knee injuries that get more than these families," he said.

In addition to death benefits, the city also pays health insurance premiums for spouses of fallen officers until they remarry, with a commitment to pay the full premiums, and for their children until they reach the age of 25 or as long as they are enrolled in school.

Jace Kohan,secretary/treasurer of the International Association of Firefighter Local 754, which represents Tampa's firefighters, said the union supports the proposed changes.

"These are people who gave their lives and they deserve those benefits," he said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, will sponsor the proposed legislation in the Senate while Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa will sponsor it in the House of Representatives, co-sponsored by Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.

"We're recognizing that these folks put their lives on the line everyday, and some of them don't come home," Young said. "These families deserve our support."

Money for the added benefits would come from a small increase in pension contributions paid by the city, police officers and firefighters, according to a draft of the legislation.

"I don't believe that any officer would have a problem with paying into something like this," said Sgt. P.J. Gray, chairman of the city's police and fire pension board.

City officials will present a draft of the proposed local bill to the Hillsborough County legislative delegation on Tuesday when it meets at the University of South Florida.

With 31 Tampa officers killed in the line of duty since 1895 five in the past decade alone the city pays death benefits for 19 police spouses and five children.

They include the spouses and children of Det. Randy Bell, who was shot in May 1998 while transporting a suspect; Cpl. Michael Roberts, who was killed Aug. 19, 2009, while investigating a suspicious person; and officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab, who were shot and killed trying to make an arrest during a traffic stop June 29, 2010.

The city also pays death benefits for the spouses of two firefighters, Jack Barker, who died in 2001 from hepatitis C he contracted on the job, and Francis G. Warner, who was shot to death in 1981 by a disgruntled former employee.

Since 1890, 16 firefighters have died in the line of duty for Tampa Fire Rescue.

By CHRISTIAN M. WADE | The Tampa Tribune
Published: September 24, 2011

Tampa Tribune TBO

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