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Burmaster's cell expense triple the norm
Legislator is reimbursed $1,135 by the county for personal phone since it's like 'full-time job'

Niagara County legislators are limited to $350 worth of county expense payments per year -- except for Legislature Vice Chairman Clyde L. Burmaster.

Burmaster, a Republican from Ransomville, is one of four legislators who sought reimbursements for doing county business on his personal cell phone last year, according to records obtained by The Buffalo News under the state's Freedom of Information Law.

The other three -- Democrats Dennis F. Virtuoso and Jason J. Cafarella of Niagara Falls and Kyle R. Andrews of Wilson, now the county treasurer -- used their entire $350 expense allocations on cell phone reimbursements.

But Burmaster was reimbursed $1,135.42 for his cell charges.

"I work just like a full-time job," Burmaster said in an interview conducted by cell phone during his recent Florida vacation. "I'm available 24 hours a day. I'm probably the most accessible legislator there is."

Legislature Chairman William L. Ross, C-Wheatfield, said last week that he told Burmaster he was allowed to have the county reimburse his cell phone bills without a cap because of his additional duties.

"Because he's vice chairman, he does have to assume my duties and responsibilities when I'm out of town," Ross said. "With his vast experience and expertise, he probably gets more calls than the rest of the legislators combined."

He said the Legislature never voted on the arrangement; neither is there a written policy that permits the payments.

"That's not fair," Virtuoso said. "My cell phone bills are over $150 a month. I just put in for the maximum [$350 per year in reimbursements]."

Ross said most legislators use the $350 for business cards or stationery.

Burmaster said he asked for the special arrangement.

"I guess it's because I do so much work for the county," he said. "The job of vice chairman requires some of that."

Also, Burmaster is chairman of the Public Works Committee. "I have almost daily phone conversations with [Public Works Commissioner] Kevin O'Brien, almost daily phone conversations with the county attorney. I oversee the Sewer District, the Water District, I talk to the Legislature clerks every day."

Burmaster said he also is co-chairman of the Niagara-Erie Regional Coalition.

"I'm the environmental leader of the county, with the CWM and LOOW issues," he contended. CWM Chemical Services and the Lake Ontario Ordnance Works sites are in Burmaster's district.

"I think [the cell phone payments] pay dividends for the county in the long run, because you can take action right away on business that otherwise would sit for a day or two," he said.

Burmaster is the only Legislature leader who does not receive extra salary. The base pay for a legislator is $15,075 per year. Ross receives an extra $3,000 for being chairman. Virtuoso, the minority leader, and Majority Leader Richard E. Updegrove, R-Lockport, are paid an extra $500.

"I do the cheapest [cell phone] plan I can get," said Burmaster, an AT&T Wireless subscriber. "Matter of fact, I just reduced my plan $10 a month."

Ross is the only legislator who has a county-paid cell phone. His total charges in 2009 were $430.15.

In all, the county has 169 cell phones that cost $70,929 last year. The largest tab was $19,813 for the 46 cell phones in the Sheriff's Office.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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