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LOCKPORT – Republicans in the Niagara County Legislature charged last week that former Democratic Election Commissioner Nancy L. Smith’s upcoming retirement is timed to maximize her county health insurance benefits.

Smith and county Democratic Chairman Nicholas J. Forster denied the accusation, but the fact remains that if Smith left before April 15, when she turns 55, she wouldn’t receive any retirement health insurance from the county.

But by staying until her birthday, Smith ensures that the county will pay 75 percent of her health premiums for the rest of her life.

“That’s why it’s going to cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Legislator Paul B. Wojtaszek, R-North Tonawanda.

Family coverage costs the county between $12,000 and $14,000 a year, depending on the option chosen, said Risk and Insurance Director Jennifer R. Pitarresi. In recent years, annual increases have been 5 percent to 8 percent.

On Feb. 19, the Legislature accepted the Democratic committee’s decision to replace Smith with Lora A. Allen as election commissioner, but Smith was chosen to succeed Allen as deputy commissioner until April.

“She decided when she was going to stay,” Forster said. “[Health insurance] wasn’t a question. It never came up.”

The Legislature in 1998 adopted a policy that appointed officials such as Smith receive fully paid county health insurance if they have 20 years of county service.

Smith will retire with 19 years on the county payroll, entitling her to 75 percent coverage.

But the 1998 policy says the retiree must have reached “the minimum retirement age as denied by the New York State Retirement System.” That age is 55.

“If she left her employment before her retirement age, she wouldn’t get anything [in health insurance],” County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said.

“You have to reach the minimum retirement before the day you retire, or I suppose ‘on the day of’ works, too,” Pitarresi agreed.

“That’s why they’re keeping her on,” Wojtaszek charged. “I firmly don’t believe Lora needs the orientation process. She’s been there 10 years. She’s ready to take the reins.”

Forster said, “It’s too bad the Dirty Dozen [his name for the 12-member GOP Legislature delegation] didn’t pay more attention to trying to reduce taxes the last 12 years instead of nailing Nancy Smith to the wall. … It sounds like she’s the first county employee ever to retire. It almost seems like it, according to these wizards.”

Smith said in an interview last week that the decision to stay as deputy commissioner until her birthday was driven by her desire not to be without income until her state pension kicks in at age 55.

She is fully vested in the state pension system. Her years as secretary to Lockport Mayor Thomas C. Rotondo from 1990 through 1993 count. She became county auditor in 1994, deputy election commissioner in 1998 and commissioner in 2001.

“My husband and I had decided I was probably going to retire at the end of April, anyway,” Smith said. “We’re making some changes in my life, and he’s older than me, and I want to spend some time with him.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com