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Supervisors-Legislature dispute comes down to control

An effort by Niagara County's 12 town supervisors to provide lifetime health insurance for one of their former colleagues may lead to a larger showdown with the County Legislature over control of the county's special districts.

The Water District Administrative Board, which consists of the 12 supervisors, passed a resolution Aug. 1 to provide Ronald C. Johnston with fully paid health insurance. Johnston, a former Porter supervisor from 1978 to 1995, retired July 31 after 10 years as Water District director.

However, the Legislature's Administration Committee, which was asked to ratify Johnston's insurance, has tabled the request twice, most recently Dec. 13.

Legislator Gerald K. Farnham, R-Lockport, the committee chairman, said this week he opposes the request, asserting that Johnston is not entitled to the coverage.

The county has a rule that employees who put in 20 years or more with the county are entitled to free lifetime health insurance -- free to them.

However, as far as Farnham and Jennifer R. Pitarresi, county risk and insurance director, are concerned, Johnston only has 10 years as a county employee. The supervisors claim Johnston's 17 years as a town supervisor, which equals 17 years on the Water District board, put him over the 20-year threshold.

"Ron was a good director. He did a heck of a job. We just thought he was entitled to the coverage," said Hartland Supervisor William A. Annable, chairman of the Water District board.

Pitarresi said a 10-year employee is entitled to have the taxpayers foot the bill for only 50 percent of his insurance premiums in retirement. Even though the Water District has pledged to pay for Johnston's insurance -- the monthly cost of family coverage, depending on the option chosen, ranges from $882 to $1,402 in 2006 -- legislators are balking.

"It doesn't comply with the rules," Farnham insisted.

A 1969 County Legislature resolution gave supervisors membership in the county health plan if they want it. Pitarresi said the only two receiving the coverage in 2005 were Annable and Jerry L. Dean of Wilson, whose term expires Saturday. Annable's single coverage will cost $561 a month in 2006, Pitarresi said.

But the flap over Johnston's health coverage is a symptom of what could turn out to be a wider issue -- whether the Legislature or the supervisors should be in charges of the water and sewer districts.

Farnham insists that state law puts the Legislature, not the supervisors, in charge of the districts. "We're put there to create policy and watch those dollars," Farnham said.

"They're nothing more than an administrative entity of county government," said Legislator Clyde L. Burmaster, R-Ransomville.

Annable signaled the supervisors will defend their turf.

"About every five years they get some new legislators and try to get involved with us," he said. "The Water District was formed by state legislation." And he said that law put the supervisors in charge.

County Attorney Claude A. Joerg disagreed. "The enabling legislation does not give [the supervisors] the authority that historically has been thought to exist," he said.

Annable said, "We always end up with a surplus. Maybe that's what they're interested in."

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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