TOWN OF NIAGARA – Workers’ compensation claims for the Niagara Active Hose Volunteer Fire Company have hit more than $312,000 a year, 10 times greater than the average cost of claims by other companies in Niagara County.
Sue Koral of Self Funding Inc. presented the figures Thursday at a Town Board work session as part of a report on the status of the town’s self-insurance plan.
According to the report, the town paid out $312,820 at the end of last September. The year-end total is expected to be more than $326,000 when the final 2012 bills come in.
Supervisor Steven Richards said the budget line for those claims would fall about $62,000 short.
He noted that the average amount paid by other towns for fire company claims is much less.
“That’s $1.22 per $1,000 [of assessed valuation] of our town tax rate,” he said of the total cost. Without that expense, the town would be able to lower its tax rate, he said. The rate homeowners pay is about $5.15 per $1,000, according to the last budget figures.
Koral said the town is paying on about seven open claims. Most of the money goes toward medical expenses, while the claimants receive an average of $500 a week in compensation pay for being injured while on fire company time.
The town has been self-insured for a number of years after it was dropped by the Niagara County insurance consortium, Richards said.
“Nobody would insure us,” he noted.
He blamed state workers’ compensation laws for allowing the high costs the town has to pay.
“We don’t have the ability to do anything about it,” he said. “It’s the fault of the state system.”
To help uncover fraudulent claims, a private investigator has been following the firefighters in the cases and photographing their activities.
The subject of the investigator took on a different perspective when Richards told Councilman Rob Clark the investigator was not going after him. Richards said Clark has posted on his own Facebook page that the supervisor hired a private eye to follow him.
“Be a man and take it off” the Facebook page, Richards said. “Because of your Facebook page, the whole investigation is blown.”
Clark, who is a political opponent of Richards and who has announced that he will run for supervisor, said he would not remove the posting.
Clark, who is also a member of the volunteer fire company, said the investigator should be reporting to the insurance fund administrator, not Richards.
Deputy Supervisor Danny Sklarski defended Richards, saying that he has the right as the town’s chief fiscal officer to look into the expenses.
Richards also told Clark that one of the claimants should be removed from the fire company’s active list while on medical leave.
Clark said he did not have the authority to drop the person from the active duty list.