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County Attorney Claude A. Joerg presented municipalities Wednesday with a plan that would allow them to pull out of the county workers' compensation pool at bargain prices.

At a meeting between county officials and representatives of the cities, towns, and villages, Joerg said the local law governing the Mutual Self-Insurance Plan could be changed to alter the fee members have to pay to get out.

At present, the fee is based on a complex formula that tries to estimate how much the member would owe to settle all the claims on its outstanding workers' compensation cases. The payment is to be made in one lump sum.

Joerg's idea is to let a member municipality out if it pays the county one-quarter of its premium from the previous year and if it agrees to pay a quarterly bill to the county to cover all the claims its employees filed while it was still a member.

Rick Mason, president of HRH Risk Management Services, the pool's administrator, said payment of compensation claims to workers can last for decades after the original injury.

Legislature Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster said if further research verifies that Joerg's idea is legal, the Legislature will try to pass it by the end of March.

The Ad Hoc Self-Insurance Committee, comprising municipal representatives, would also have to approve the proposal.

Burmaster said, "This will allow everybody to leave who wants to leave."

Several towns, cities and villages have talked about leaving, especially since the county socked them with heavy premium increases for this year. Some of the assessments more than doubled the 2000 prices.

The total charged the members jumped from $4.1 million in 2000 to $6 million this year. Every municipality except North Tonawanda and the Town of Lockport, along with six school districts and most volunteer fire companies, was in the plan at the start of the year.

The towns of Niagara and Royalton have voted themselves out in the past month, though the county claims the moves were invalid because the towns missed an Oct. 1 deadline.

North Tonawanda became the first municipality to jump ship when it bailed out of the program in April 1999. The county is suing North Tonawanda over the withdrawal fee. The county wants $3.4 million; North Tonawanda says it owes only $1.2 million.

Risk and Insurance Services Coordinator Rodger D. Smith also said the pool is likely to acquire a catastrophic coverage, or stop-loss, policy to cover the program against a huge claim in a major accident.

"One paraplegic would bankrupt us," said Town of Lewiston Councilman D. James Langlois.

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