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Niagara Legislature shields nonunion retirement health insurance from politics

LOCKPORT – Retirement health benefits for long-serving Niagara County political appointees and other nonunion officials and employees were protected from politically motivated dismissals in an action by the County Legislature last week.

The lawmakers unanimously approved a measure that County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said consolidated the county’s policy on heath insurance for nonunion retirees in one place while making few changes.

He said he received a question about health coverage from a retiree recently and found that in order to answer it, he had to dig through numerous Legislature resolutions dating back as far as 1986.

The county’s policy for existing nonunion employees and officials, including patronage appointees, is to grant them 100 percent county-paid health insurance for life if they complete 20 years of county employment.

Someone who serves between 15 and 19 years qualifies for 75 percent county-paid coverage, while those who put in 10 to 14 years are granted 50 percent county-paid coverage. Current or former elected officials also receive health insurance on those terms, regardless of how or why they leave office.

The insurance kicks in once they reach the state-sanctioned retirement age, which in most cases is 55. But the new provision in the policy specifies that officials who haven’t reached age 55 still receive their health coverage if they lose their jobs because of a “change in the membership” of the Legislature following an election.

That means long-serving employees who are removed simply for political reasons can count on retirement health insurance if they’ve put in enough time.

The same goes for a small number of non-elected personnel who are not hired by the Legislature and who don’t belong to unions, chiefly confidential secretaries to county officials. If they’ve put in enough years, they keep their coverage if they lose their jobs without cause within 45 days of the first meeting of a newly elected Legislature.

In both categories, “if they’re terminated for cause or they quit on their own, unless they’re of retirement age, they don’t get lifetime health insurance,” Joerg said.

However, from now on, newly elected county officials, other than legislators, and newly hired nonunion officials and employees never can qualify for 100 percent county-paid health coverage in retirement.

“The best they can ever hope for is 50 percent,” Joerg said, adding that the policy duplicates a provision in the Civil Service Employees Association contract ratified last week.

The new measure has no impact on legislators. In 2004, the Legislature abolished the chance of lifetime health insurance for members first elected after that year.