JUNEAU Future Alaska police and firefighters would lose their death and disability benefits under proposed changes to the state's retirement systems, officers from across the state told lawmakers Saturday.
The families of officers killed or seriously injured in the line of duty would be the ones to suffer, they told the House Finance Committee.
''You are taking away a lifeline,'' said Deborah Seely Kornchuk, the widow of Dan Seely, an Anchorage police officer shot and killed in 1996 while responding to a domestic violence call.
Kornchuk was three weeks pregnant when her husband was killed, and she said the money, about $2,000 a month, helped ease the financial worries she had to deal with on top of her grief.
On Saturday, she said she was speaking for those who would follow her ''into that horrible club of spouses killed in the line of duty.''
''I am more than willing to stop these benefits from being taken away,'' Kornchuk said.
The finance committee is considering a bill that would overhaul the state's retirement systems for public employees and teachers. One of the main pieces is switching from a defined benefit plan, in which retirees are guaranteed a certain percentage of their former salary, to a defined contribution plan, in which workers contribute to individual accounts much like a 401(k) account.
The switch, if approved by the Legislature, would be just for new employees. Current state workers and teachers would keep their defined benefit plans unless they elected to switch.
About 70 teachers, firefighters, police, state troopers and other public workers signed up to testify to the committee on Saturday. Many asked the committee to kill or slow down the bill until the full effects of the changes were known.
Under the current system, police and firefighters or their families receive 50 percent of their salary and full medical coverage if they are killed or injured on duty.
''I've been to enough funerals now and I know what these benefits can do,'' said James Conley of the Anchorage Police Department.
One of the effects of switching to a defined contribution plan would be to remove that benefit. Instead, families would be paid from the sum of their individual accounts.
If the injured or killed officer has been employed only a short time, that won't amount to very much, said Mike Davidson, an Anchorage firefighter and a member of the Alaska Professional Fire Fighters Association.
''This is simply too much for people who have laid their lives on the line for Alaskans,'' he said.
Sgt. Mike Couturier of the Anchorage Police Department said the proposed changes also will hurt recruitment and retainment. He said it could turn Alaska into a training ground for police who leave for better opportunities after the department spends an average of $94,000 to train each one.
State Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, presented the bill to the finance committee. He said he knew the public safety concerns were an issue and believed they will be addressed.
House Finance Committee member Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, said he only recently became aware of the concerns of police and firefighters. He said he considers it unfair, but believes the committee will work through the problem.
''I think there's a willingness to find a solution,'' Stoltze said.
Melanie Millhorn, director of the state Division of Retirement and Benefits, said a defined contribution plan can be designed to sell supplemental benefits, such as long-term disability or death and dismemberment options.
The committee is expected to continue working on the bill next week.
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