FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The mayor of the Arizona city that lost 19 firefighters in a deadly blaze this summer survived a tougher-than-expected re-election challenge Tuesday, overcoming a dispute over benefits for the crew’s families that divided the town.
Mayor Marlin Kuykendall angered residents and some widows of the firefighters for his stance on the benefits. Thirteen of the fallen firefighters were classified as seasonal employees and therefore not entitled to the more lucrative benefits that the six full-time members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew received.
Kuykendall said it would be illegal to change the rules after the fact to extend full-time benefits to families of the entire crew, and some voters were upset that Prescott wasn’t doing more for men who gave their lives protecting the nearby city of Yarnell from the fire on June 30.
Results from the city’s primary election showed Kuykendall with 55 percent of the vote, compared with 42 percent for former City Councilwoman Lindsay Bell.
The two-term mayor was cast onto a national stage after the fire as he appeared with Vice President Joe Biden and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer at a memorial for the men. He largely had put off campaigning to focus on funerals and fundraisers for the men, and other city business.
The benefits controversy suddenly became a campaign issue, driven largely by the widow of firefighter Andrew Ashcraft in a series of news conferences and TV interviews in which she said her benefits didn’t go far enough.
Each of firefighters’ families will receive a tax-free $328,000 lump sum from the federal government, Social Security benefits, workers compensation and free tuition for their children at Arizona universities, along with a share of donations. The families of the six fulltime employees also get health insurance, an increased life insurance payment and the men’s annual salaries.
Kuykendall stood firm in his belief that the pleas by Juliann Ashcraft were driven by money. Aside from being illegal, the city said it would cost more than $50 million over 60 years to give the families the same benefits and would cripple basic services to residents.
“It’s very obvious money is involved,” he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “What we ought to do is admit it and everybody get together and decide how much is enough.”
More than 26,000 people were registered to vote in the election that the candidates themselves predicted would be close because of the benefits controversy.
The turnout was 48 percent, about the same percentage as the 2011 primary election.
Kuykendall and the City Council are still debating how to rebuild the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew that was the only one in the country employed by a city government.