Richardson: More needs to be done for families of fallen officers - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

Richardson: More needs to be done for families of fallen officers

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Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at bill.richardson@cox.net.

Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011 2:10 pm | Updated: 5:03 pm, Wed Dec 21, 2011.

The shooting death several weeks ago of Glendale Police Officer Brad Jones marked the sixth time an Arizona police officer has made the ultimate sacrifice since January 2010.

Jones, 26, an officer for four years, died after being shot while assisting a probation officer with a call. He left behind a wife and two children.

For the cop on the beat, state trooper patrolling the highways, a deputy sheriff roaming back roads or a corrections officer working the cell block, law enforcement is dangerous. Officers routinely pay for our safety with their lives and the futures of their families.

Two weeks before Jones' murder, local media reported how the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Memorial Fund had come to the financial assistance of medically retired deputy sheriff David Wargo, who was run over and paralyzed while making an arrest. His wife had to give up her career - and paycheck - to care for him and their three children.

The memorial fund has given both the Jones and Wargo families $25,000. Wargo's wife called the money a "godsend."

Sadly, godsends are what the families of fallen and disabled officers in Arizona need to survive.

Widows of fallen officers only receive 50 percent of their spouses' pension. Disabled officers also receive 50 percent of their pension.

Many officers and their survivors aren't eligible for Social Security benefits because their employers don't participate in the program.

According to the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System, the average officer's salary, with four years of service like Jones had, is $50,193. An officer's widow could expect $25,000 a year. The basic health insurance policy available to widows and the disabled costs almost $14,000 per year, plus extra charges for eye care and dental coverage. Costs are up nearly $200 a month from last year.

And as insurance costs went up, the Arizona Legislature cut the benefits provided to survivors and the disabled.

After 2012, widows, orphans and the disabled more than likely won't see any increases in their benefits for years to come, thanks to last year's rushed legislative action. In recent years, the increases for this small group have averaged around $100 a month. These increases have been in place for 40 years.

This drastic legislation was pushed through the Legislature by former House Speaker Kirk Adams after news stories targeted the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) for reform following reported problems with the system, problems that allowed double-dippers like Maricopa County Sheriff's Office ex-Chief Deputy David Hendershott and former Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, Tempe's triple-dipper police chief Tom Ryff, and other law enforcement executives to get multiple pension benefits, $100,000 payouts from the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP), and additional health care benefits.

Adams, a self-professed reformer, resigned from the Legislature after his signature legislation was passed, and announced his candidacy for U.S. Congress.

Adams also wrote the legislation that gave more than $1 million to Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu to purchase a helicopter. That same amount would've covered the cost of increases to widows, orphans and disabled for at least a year.

ABC15 is now reporting the former pension fund manager, who retired in 2004, has had his $18,000-a-month pension suspended following questions about "inflating his own pension" to collect funds he wasn't entitled to. The state Legislature has fiduciary oversight of the multi-billion dollar pension fund and the fund manager's benefits.

It was the Legislature that authorized these "golden parachute"-like benefits for a handful of public employees.

It was also the Legislature that took away benefits from the neediest and most deserving. The Legislature needs to fix what it broke.

When officers lose their lives or become disabled while serving us, it's our duty to take care of them and their families.

There needs to be a "godsend" from the Legislature to those whose lives have been shattered and broken while protecting and serving Arizona.

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