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ISSUE OF PAY HIKE FOR COURT CAUGHT IN POLITICAL SNARE

The last time Amherst Town Board members gave themselves a raise, Ronald Reagan was president.

For the past 14 years, board salaries have remained at $20,581. It has been almost that long since the supervisor's pay was raised to $65,101 and the town justices' to $42,000.

Meanwhile, inflation marches on. Items that cost $1 in 1988 now cost $1.51, according to federal labor statistics.

Supervisor Susan J. Grelick says she does not mind the same old paycheck and is not including raises for any elected officials in her 2002 budget.

"I would run for the position no matter what. It's the best job I've ever had," she said.

But what about other elected officials?

This week, Amherst Town Court officials appeared at a budget hearing to ask board members to restore $34,000 being sought to improve the salaries of justices and court personnel.

Amherst has the busiest town court in the state, with a caseload that has doubled since 1988, Court Administrator James Loughran said. It also collects $1.3 million in fines and fees for the town, he told officials.

Nevertheless, since the late 1980s, the salary of the town's two part-time justices has been $42,000, less than justices earn in the towns of Cheektowaga, Tonawanda and Hamburg, where there are fewer cases. Also, even though they have fewer cases, Cheektowaga's justices are full time, earning $62,800.

Amherst Town Justice Mark G. Farrell, who accompanied Loughran to the meeting, estimates that he spends 30 to 35 hours a week on his caseload. Farrell also is credited with a number of innovations, including the first suburban drug court in the nation and the first domestic-violence court in Erie County.

"I'll go to the general public with my record any day of the week," he said.

Justice Geoffrey K. Klein, who has been on the bench for about two years, estimates that he spends "up to 28 hours, sometimes more," a week on court matters.

"The problem I see is that, over the years, the salary hasn't increased," he said, adding that he has sympathy for Farrell, who has been a judge for about eight years.

Still, if history holds true, there will again be no raises for the judges -- or for any elected officials next year.

In fact, just talk of pay raises by officials on the politically charged Town Board can cause trouble.

One Town Board member, who asked not to be identified, grumbles that past attempts to raise judges' pay have been used as political weapons.

"You try to do the right thing, and (opponents) hit you over the head with it," the board member said.

Grelick says she cut the $34,000 requested by court officials from the proposed budget because other elected officials in the town also are forgoing pay increases.

This means that Grelick, who now earns less than many unionized town employees, also will not be getting a raise. Neither will the six other Town Board members, the town clerk, the highway superintendent or the two judges.

"None of the elected officials are getting raises," she said.

Grelick agrees that town justices are deserving but says she would rather set up an independent salary review commission to study pay raises for all elected officials.

"I would like to remove the politics," she said.

e-mail: tdolan@buffnews.com

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