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LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Legislature voted along party lines this week to award a consulting contract for the new county phone system to the second-lowest bidder.

The Republican-controlled body voted 11-3 to hire Cannon Design of Grand Island for $74,500.

That was $4,100 more than the lowest bidder, ECC Technologies of Penfield, Monroe County.

The county has a professional services policy giving preference to companies in Niagara County or bordering counties, but Information Technology Director Larry L. Helwig said the main reason for choosing Cannon was because of the company’s greater experience with large phone systems, including the voice-over-Internet system the county wants.

He said Cannon did a building-by-building assessment of the county’s nearly 20-year-old system about five years ago.

Helwig said ECC was the second choice of a four-person committee comprising himself, the in-house project manager, and representatives from the Public Works and Purchasing departments.

He said Cannon was more qualified to handle the task of rewiring the electrical closets in each of the county’s 11 buildings than ECC was, including running computer lines to some 400 phones that are in locations where computers are not located now.

“To go with our second-lowest bidder, we need more proof than that,” said Minority Leader Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls. He voted no, along with fellow Falls Democrats Jason A. Zona and Owen T. Steed.

Helwig said 26 companies picked up bid documents, but only six bid. “Maybe they saw in the (request for proposals) that they can’t sell us a phone system,” he said, referring to a clause that bars the successful bidder on the design contract from bidding on the actual phone hardware, estimated to cost $2.3 million.

In all, the county plans to buy about 1,700 new phone devices, Helwig said. About 200 phones in court offices will no longer be on the county system after the changeover.

Cannon has donated $3,286 to the Niagara County Republican Committee since 2007.

“Mr. Helwig’s reputation is not going to be tarnished by some off-the-cuff comments that it has something to do with partisan politics,” County Manager Jeffrey M. Glatz said. He criticized members who attacked the deal but didn’t attend the committee meeting where it was explained.

In other action, the Legislature voted to urge state passage of “Phoenix’s Law,” which would impose felony penalties of up to four years in prison for aggravated animal cruelty.

To emphasize the need for the law, Amy Lewis, shelter director of the SPCA of Niagara, and two volunteers led three rescued dogs around the Legislature Chambers to be petted by legislators.

“In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen enough cruelty cases to say there needs to be stiffer penalties,” Lewis said.

Also, the Legislature reappointed John E. Shoemaker to a six-year term as real property services director. Shoemaker’s current $68,028-a-year salary will continue through 2014. Each year thereafter, he will receive a 2.5 percent raise, building his pay to $76,967 by 2019.

The Legislature also urged the rejection by the International Joint Commission of its proposal to implement new water level controls in Lake Ontario that would produce greater variations between high and low water.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com