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Price tag put on extending firefighters’ benefits

Passage of a next Tuesday’s referendum to let volunteer firefighters continue to accrue benefits after turning 65 would cost Wales homeowners $4 per $100,000 assessed valuation per year per firefighter, according to experts.

The change would affect one firefighter immediately and four others in the near future, officials told about a dozen residents during a public forum last week in the Wales Community Center.

The Firemen’s Service Award Program went into effect in 2006 as a recruitment tool and to give members a pension, said Robert Gajewski, a 32-year member of the Wales Center Volunteer Fire Department and chairman of the service awards program.

At that point, firefighters’ benefits stopped at age 65, but they could work as long as they liked, and this was found to violate age-discrimination laws. Approval of the referendum would allow firefighters age 65 to continue to get more benefits so they could achieve 20 years of service.

Gajewski said passage of the referendum could motivate more people to serve.

The Wales Center Volunteer Fire Department has 37 active members, and he would like to see this number grow to 50. He said there are a variety of jobs available besides answering fire calls, including traffic control, EMS and office work.

Voting will take place from noon to 9 p.m. in the Wales Community Center, 12345 Big Tree Road.

On another issue, resident Dori Carlone showed a map of 50 gas wells in town and said each has a folder at the state Department of Environmental Conservation office in Olean marking the date when the well was drilled, the depth and any nonproprietary chemicals used by companies. Most wells in Wales are 2,500 to 3,000 feet deep and use nearly 30,000 to 50,000 gallons of water from nearby ponds or creeks.

“We need gas for fuel to become self-sufficient, but the companies need to be more careful,” said Dr. John Carlone, her husband.

He suggested owners of water wells get a baseline test before any hydraulic fracturing takes place, should the controversial drilling method be approved.

Other concerns include where the water used in drilling the wells goes. Carlone pointed to a blowout in Pennsylvania where one well was not capped and ran all night.

He said he was told the water would be shipped to Buffalo to be treated, but others said it actually was dumped in Lake Erie. It was suggested that residents contact the DEC to get accurate information.

Concerns also were expressed about pollution in Mark A. Rademacher Park, which covers 730 acres in Wales.

Carlone said the park already meets all the five criteria to be designated a “critical environmental area” to protect if from future pollution. Some residents want County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz to contact the DEC about the park.