by Susan Mikula Campbell
Investigation of workers' compensation claims by Niagara Active Hose Volunteer Fire Co. members has sparked some heated discussion in the Town of Niagara.
Supervisor Steve Richards, who also serves as the town's chief fiscal officer, said the claims of $312,000 per year are higher than any other volunteer fire company in the county where claims average $2,550 per year. Richards also said a private investigator checking on the claims came to him at his business to report that he was harassed by neighbors of a member of the fire company being investigated.
Councilman Robert Clark, meanwhile, said he believed the investigator was watching him and his house, not his neighbor who is on comp and lives around the corner. He said there was "too much coincidence in the timing of this investigation."
Clark brought the matter up at the Town Board work session last Thursday. He and Richards have long been at odds politically.
At the meeting, Sue Koral of Self Funding Inc. gave a report on the town's self-insurance plan indicating the cost of the comp claims may top $326,000 by the end of the year.
Richards said the comp claims are higher than the $233,000 per year that town pays the fire department for protection of homes and businesses. The town was dropped from the county insurance group and became self-insured several years ago.
Richards said the discrepancy between the comp figures for the town compared with other fire companies raised red flags with the insurance administrator, and that when charges are in question, a investigator is sent out to observe and see if there are "any shenanigans."
"Nobody benefits from fraudulent charges," he said. "These claims are costing the taxpayers of the Town of Niagara about $1.22 per $1,000 of assessed value.
If the charges are legitimate, he questioned whether the members of the fire company are not being trained properly or not capable of doing the job.
Clark is a member of Niagara Active Hose, but said he couldn't comment on the comp claims. Fire department officials could not be reached for comment.
Clark did say, "a lot of those cases are from years and years ago. We (the town) can't get rid of them ... it gets to be something your hands are tied."
Richards said an investigation of the claims will check that taxpayers aren't being unfairly charged.
"I won't tolerate any monkey business," Richards said. "If you're injured while working for the fire company, we're going to pay it. If you're taking advantage of us, it's going to come out."