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Burmaster era returns to Legislature As majority leader again, veteran lawmaker is as eager as ever for things to happen fast

LOCKPORT -- Clyde L. Burmaster has presented a variety of views in his 13-year career in the Niagara County Legislature.

Burmaster, who turns 66 today, can be a tough Republican partisan and a fervent environmentalist. He has been both a friend and a foe of local unions.

He has pushed for county authority over the towns and opposed county assistance to the cities, but he also has spoken up for helping them in other circumstances.

Last week, Burmaster became the man the county's Republican leaders chose to carry their lopsided Legislature majority into this year's elections.

"We're going into a very difficult election campaign," said Henry F. Wojtaszek, chairman of the county Republican Party, who engineered the switch to Burmaster from the three-year chairmanship of William L. Ross, a registered Conservative of Wheatfield. "Clyde has a little different style, and I think Clyde's style is what we need."

The Ransomville Republican is a retired private investigator. He can be tough on political opponents and has shown he can take it as well as dish it out. He has been a lot of things, but one thing he usually isn't is patient.

He said after he was formally elected to the chairmanship Tuesday that he doesn't expect to usher in any substantive changes in county policy -- but added, "I think we're probably going to try to pick up the speed a little bit and try to get more things accomplished than in the past."

New Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove of the Town of Lockport said he doesn't expect any substantive shifts because the majority caucus has undergone only one change: W. Keith McNall succeeded Glenn S. Aronow, who resigned Dec. 1 from a City of Lockport seat.

"I wouldn't anticipate any changes in philosophy or objectives," Updegrove said.

Burmaster has been in the hot seat before. He served as Legislature chairman in 2000 and 2001.

The first time around, he emphasized the part-time nature of the Legislature chairmanship and said he did not intend to keep regular office hours. But a county crew was dispatched almost as soon as the Courthouse reopened after the New Year's holiday to repaint the chairman's office.

In fact, in 2000, he was the first chairman to take over the corner office adjoining the Legislature Chambers, which had been the Legislature clerk's domain.

He also played a role in the makeover of the Chambers, in which old green metal desks were replaced by wood desks made of cherry.

"I have a lot of pride in this county. I tried to restore dignity to those Chambers," he said. "I took that corner office. It goes to the dignity and pride."

>Passionate advocate

What makes Burmaster tick?

Perhaps the key to the seeming contradictions is his determination to represent his constituents.

"He's as passionate about defending the taxpayers as I am about sticking up for my union guys. That's probably why he keeps getting elected," said Edward McDonald, president of Local 182, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the county's union of blue-collar workers.

That means that under Burmaster's leadership, Niagara County will continue to insist that the county and other members of the Niagara Power Coalition should be allowed to spend Niagara River Greenway aid any way they want, even on projects away from the Niagara River.

Burmaster said he disagrees with the views of "special interest groups" who want to confine greenway spending to the riverfront. "I've been told this money was meant to be spread around the county, not just along the river," he said.

But don't write Burmaster off as an enemy of the environment. His district includes the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works site, where nuclear waste from the World War II atomic bomb project is buried.

"I want a LOOW cleanup," he said, calling it a homeland security issue. He held out the possibility of a calamity if terrorists ever blow open the landfill.

"Should that cap be compromised, probably a 50-mile radius could be affected by radioactive fallout," Burmaster argued.

He also has been an active co-sponsor of resolutions against expanding CWM Chemical Services, a landfill also in his district.

"My thing with CWM is, I want an assurance of safety," Burmaster said. "It doesn't make sense to have the only licensed hazardous waste facility in the Northeastern United States near probably the biggest tourist attraction in the Northeastern United States."

Burmaster opposes the removal of the Robert Moses Parkway, contending that Niagara Falls needs all the access it can get. In November, he said diverting motorists down Main Street would be "like sending them on a trip to Baghdad."

>Airport a priority

He favors downtown Niagara Falls development. "I think USA Niagara needs to do more, and faster," he said, referring to a state agency that controls a chunk of downtown. Some, he said, used to blame Laborers Local 91 and its threats against contractors for a lack of progress in Niagara Falls. Local 91 has been hit hard by federal prosecution -- several of its old leaders are in prison -- but Burmaster said he still sees little construction in Niagara Falls.

Burmaster also said efforts to expand service at Niagara Falls International Airport should be accelerated this year. Advertising for the upcoming twice-weekly flights to South Carolina by Myrtle Beach Direct Air and Tours "looked damn good," he added.

"I am told the airport is going to be taking off with the casino money," he said. "The terminal construction will be key to all of that. It's a whole new era."

On another current topic, Burmaster said he rather would see AES Corp. reach a settlement with the Town of Somerset and the Barker Central School District over the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal AES received from the county Industrial Development Agency for its Somerset power plant.

He didn't seem inclined to try to pressure the agency to rescind the agreement it approved in October, as many in Somerset and Barker are demanding.

"I don't begrudge a company for making money. I don't begrudge the Barker School District the gift of money. I think the real issue is the assessment," Burmaster said. "Once you establish what [the power plant] is worth, everything flows from that. . . . I don't know if they're being treated fairly because I don't know if that number's good."

>County union clashes

Burmaster never has been afraid to start a fight.

Six years ago, when the county was rolling in money after selling bonds backed by 25 years of revenue from the tobacco settlement, Niagara Falls members called on the county to use the money to buy new highway trucks for the cities.

Burmaster opposed that and obtained an opinion from the county attorney that it couldn't be done. The county ended up buying new trucks for itself and giving its old trucks, some of which were almost new, to the cities.

The reconstruction of the main entrance of the County Courthouse, to accommodate security measures sought by the Office of Court Administration, got under Burmaster's skin in 2000. He publicly questioned the competence of the contractor after the job took longer than Burmaster thought necessary. He even sought to deny that company further contracts on county jobs.

But in 1999, Burmaster got the Legislature to pass a resolution imposing pro-union project labor agreements in county construction projects. The Niagara County Building Trades Council has been one of his supporters.

But the county's own unions have been a Burmaster target. As chairman of the Public Works Committee, he battled McDonald over AFSCME claims that it was entitled to continue to perform maintenance work on 50 acres of county land on Day Road in Lockport, even after the county transferred the land to the Town of Lockport for development as a town park.

Burmaster and McDonald conducted a public war of words for two years as the union used its clout in Albany to prevent passage of a special state law needed for the transfer of park land. But they sat down last year and reached a settlement that allowed the transfer to go through.

"Clyde was thinking he was getting a raw deal for his taxpayers," McDonald said. "We just sat down one day and settled it. . . . He might blow up at first, but once he gets his facts straight, he's OK."

County Manager Gregory D. Lewis, whom Burmaster has called "a plodder," has been another target of the new chairman's criticism.

"This is a new year and a new beginning," Lewis said last week. "Our job as county manager is to accommodate and support and help our political leaders to be successful."

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, said he was concerned that Burmaster and Lewis may not be a match made in heaven.

"I hope this doesn't bring animosity between the chairman and the manager," Virtuoso said. "We want progress in this county."

"Greg's management style is different than mine," Burmaster conceded. "He's able to sit there and let things develop. My style is to make them develop."


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