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Refusal to pay sewer stipend stirs debate

The Niagara County Sewer District and the County Legislature have another battle under way.

This time, the flash point is the county's refusal to pay Frank Nerone, the man in charge of the district's sewage-treatment plant, all the money the district wants him to receive.

Nerone retired four years ago as chief operator of the plant, but he was immediately hired back as a consultant. He kept right on doing the same job he had been doing for years.

His consulting contract, which called for him to be paid $5,500 a month, expired March 31. The Sewer District board, which comprises six town supervisors, voted in favor of a new contract that would increase Nerone's stipend to $6,500 a month.

The Legislature has not approved it -- it has been tabled twice in the Public Works Committee -- and the county is refusing to pay Nerone's vouchers for the new amount. Cambria Supervisor Wright H. Ellis, district chairman, said that for the last three months, a voucher for $6,500 was submitted but that Nerone was paid only $5,500.

County Auditor Ruth E. Ohol said she is blocking the payment of the extra $1,000 per month. "Part of having a contract is having it signed off on by the county attorney's office. I don't have an approved contract for $6,500," Ohol said. "I've been in contact with Public Works and the Legislature on this. I'm not a rogue doing this on my own."

"Her job is to watch the money," said Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, R-Lockport, chairman of the Public Works Committee. "I will applaud her for doing a good job."

Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville, said the Legislature has authorized the Sewer District to fill the posts of administrative director and chief operator to replace Nerone, who is handling both sets of duties. However, the district has not done so.

"This has nothing to do with an individual. They claim they're running a department of county government with a consultant," Burmaster said. "I don't agree with Frank Nerone's pay status, but that's a different issue."

Burmaster has long argued that the Legislature should have operational control of the Sewer District, which raises the hackles of the town supervisors.

Ellis said that there is a disagreement over which of the two replacements for Nerone should be hired first. "Farnham thinks we should get the chief operator on, but we think we should go to the administrative director," Ellis said.

Farnham said, "We do not need an administrative director for a Sewer District that includes only six towns, if you have an administrative board." That would be the supervisors' responsibility.

Ellis has said that there probably won't be a move to hire anyone until Nerone decides he doesn't want to work anymore.

This is the second battle over vouchers between the county and the Sewer District. The district's former attorney, Robert S. Roberson, was denied about $17,000 the district said he was owed for legal work. Ohol blocked the payments because she wasn't convinced Roberson's contract entitled him to the money.

Roberson sued the county for the money, but his case was thrown out of State Supreme Court on technical grounds in April without a ruling on its merits.


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