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Amherst Town Board members clashed Monday with officials of Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. over the company's record of servicing streetlights and plans by the town to take ownership of its lighting system.

Earlier this month, the board voted to accept a proposal by Custom Lighting Services of Kansas City to save $7.8 million over the next two decades by taking over the streetlights.

If Niagara Mohawk continues to refuse to sell the lights, the plan, which some town officials have called a "worst case scenario," says Amherst will spend $18 million to build a new lighting system and still realize the savings.

But Niagara Mohawk Vice President Dennis W. Elsenbeck accused two supporters of the proposal of "making political statements." Appearing at a work session, he also said the company was disappointed that it had no opportunity to speak to lawmakers before they accepted the competing proposal.

"We're here as a corporate citizen, making sure that the town is making the best decision," said Elsenbeck, who was flanked by two local company managers. Among a series of questions he raised was whether town officials realized the new lighting plan would eliminate about $161,000 in property tax revenues for town school districts.

Elsenbeck refused to answer directly when asked if the company is willing to sell its lighting system to Amherst. "I'm not going to give it away," he said.

Nevertheless, supporters of the Custom Lighting plan also were ready to debate.

Council Member Jane S. Woodward repeatedly rejected Elsenbeck's complaints, saying she was surprised Niagara Mohawk did not lobby Town Board members to retain the lighting contract.

"NIMO had every opportunity to pick up the phone and call Town Board members," she said, adding that the town's negotiations with Custom Lighting were not secret.

Woodward, fellow Council Member William A. O'Loughlin and Amherst Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson also sharply criticized the utility officials for what they said was a poor record of service.

O'Loughlin called Niagara Mohawk's service "totally deficient and frankly appalling," and Woodward produced copies of a number of complaints about streetlights that were out of service for as long as two months.

Anderson produced photographs of decaying lighting poles and other evidence of poor maintenance, including one light with duct tape being used to seal the opening to a box containing high-voltage electricity.

Saying the pictures represent "thousands" of Amherst's 8,500 streetlights, he said: "We pay a couple of million dollars a year to NIMO and we're not getting the service."

Outside the meeting, Elsenbeck attempted to ease the tensions, saying Niagara Mohawk will cooperate with Amherst during the upcoming negotiations over streetlights.


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