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Amherst Town Board members agreed Monday to increase the town budget by almost $200,000 to offer new pension benefits for volunteer firefighters.

The move came as the chiefs of four fire companies again appealed to town officials at a budget hearing. According to the chiefs, Amherst's volunteer firefighters want to be able to claim their pensions at age 55 instead of the current entitlement age of 62.

The town comptroller had questioned the measure because it runs contrary to the officials' attempts to hold down taxes and its long range costs have not been spelled out.

If voters give their approval in referendums later this year, the pension sweetener will boost the now-planned $450,000 tax increase to $650,000.

But Town Board members -- five of whom are up for election next month -- appeared to be in a generous mood.

"We're concerned about the firefighters. These guys are volunteers, and they put their lives on the line all the time. We want to be as helpful as we can be," Deputy Supervisor Michael G. McGuire said after the budget meeting.

He and several other board members noted that the move will result in a "small" tax increase -- adding about $9 to the overall tax bill for a home assessed at $100,000.

"In defense of the firefighters, this is the perfect time for them," Town Attorney Phillip A. Thielman said, referring to the widespread good will toward emergency service workers since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Volunteer fire companies, whose ranks include many town employees, also are considered a potent political force in local races.

The plan first surfaced in July, when the chiefs of the town's seven fire-protection districts approached town officials asking to improve pensions in hopes of recruiting more volunteers.

The group, led by Chief Michael Moore of the Ellicott Creek Fire Company, asked the town to schedule a referendum in each district to allow residents to vote on the proposal.

But because no referendums had been held, Supervisor Susan J. Grelick did not include the estimated $191,000 cost of the benefits increase in her proposed budget.

The referendum issue then got sidetracked by the terrorist attacks, McGuire said.

On Monday, McGuire and several other board members said they were ready to call for holding referendums in December.

But Town Comptroller Lawrence Southwick Jr. has cautioned board members that state officials have yet to explain several provisions of the pension proposal, meaning costs could be added.

He also has questioned whether the new benefits result in losing fire company volunteers through early retirements rather than attract new recruits.


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