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Lawmakers spar over health benefits

Two Niagara County legislators facing each other in a Democratic primary flayed each other Monday over health benefits.

Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso said he's introducing a resolution that would abolish health insurance for legislators, effective immediately.

That came after Legislator Kari Ann Bullman sent a mailing and made robocalls charging that Virtuoso will be collecting lifetime county-paid health insurance.

Virtuoso said he doesn't even take the county's health coverage -- but Bullman does.

Virtuoso said he gets his health insurance from the City of Niagara Falls, where he is a building inspector. He confirmed that at retirement he will be able to get coverage at city expense.

He would be eligible to claim that benefit from the county, since this is his 20th year in county office, but Virtuoso vowed he would not.

He noted that Bullman, who was appointed to a vacant Legislature seat April 5, promptly signed up for health insurance from the county.

"I guess that makes her a hypocrite," Virtuoso said.

Asked how she could attack Virtuoso while taking county health insurance herself, Bullman replied only, "When I was appointed to the Legislature, it was a benefit I was offered."

Virtuoso said by not taking county health coverage, he's costing himself about $8,000 a year, because the city pays a stipend equal to 50 percent of the premium to employees who obtain health insurance elsewhere. The county doesn't pay such a stipend.

Bullman said, "By stating that it's city taxpayers instead of county taxpayers, it's a disingenuous attempt to justify his taking of taxpayer-funded health insurance."

She said she would favor reviewing health coverage for former legislators, too. Virtuoso's resolution doesn't mention that.

Legislature clerk Mary Jo Tamburlin said Bullman is one of eight current legislators drawing health insurance.

The others are Renae Kimble, D-Niagara Falls; Peter E. Smolinski and Paul B. Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda; Gerald K. Farnham and W. Keith McNall, R-Lockport; David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson; and John Syracuse, R-Newfane.

In 2004, the County Legislature abolished free lifetime health insurance for legislators who last 20 years in office -- but not for those who already were in office at the time.

In 2007, another resolution required retired 20-year lawmakers to pay 50 percent of the premium if they started a term on or after Jan. 1, 2008.

The downsizing of the Legislature from 19 to 15 members resulted in a primary between Virtuoso and Bullman in the new 6th District in central Niagara Falls.


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