Health Care Controversy

11:05 PM, Oct 14, 2011   |    comments
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Niagara County Legislature

LOCKPORT, NY - "I think we should take away the unnecessary perks that we have and this is definitely a perk," said Niagara County Legislator Dennis Virtuoso, (D-Niagara Falls), in speaking about the free health care afforded part-time lawmakers like himself.

"In these days when money is so tight, it's just wrong," Virtuoso said.

Eight of the 19 legislators currently avail themselves of the free health care, which costs taxpayers more than $80,000 annually.

"I challenge anyone to show me an instance in the public sector where a part-time job pays full-time health care benefits," Virtuoso told WGRZ-TV.

In September, Virtuoso proposed lawmakers eliminate the free health care benefit for themselves, but in a chamber where his party is out numbered nearly 4-1, it didn't get very far.

"No, they voted it down," he recalled.

But perhaps even more bothersome to him was the way one member of the public, who rose to speak in support of his plan, was forced to sit down under force of law.

JoAnn Dickey of North Tonawanda, when beginning to say that her representative had a full-time job which paid him a six figure salary, was cut off mid-sentence by Legislature Chairman Bill Ross (R-Wheatfield) who ruled her out of order for violating a rule against personally attacking a lawmaker.

When she protested that she didn't actually identify the lawmaker (Paul Wojtaszek, R- North Tonawanda) by name, and continued to speak, Ross called on a Sheriff's Deputy to escort Dicky back to her seat.

"If you want to speak that's fine," Ross scolded Dicky as the deputy walked her toward the visitors gallery. "But I warn you about personal reflections and I will not accept it."

Legislature Chairman Ross did not return calls from 2 on Your Side seeking comment .

JoAnn Dicky said she didn't have time to sit down for an interview when we called her on Thursday, but told us by phone that she believes she was merely standing up for the people of Niagara County, did nothing wrong, and is owed an apology.

Virtuoso agrees with her, and though he proffered a resolution seeking an apology to her on behalf of the legislature at the very next meeting, that too was voted down.

"It's a matter of public record as to who is receiving these benefits and who is not, so she could have definitely named names..but she didn't even do that. The public are our bosses and if they have something to say to us, they should have the right to say it without fear of intimidation or retaliation."

The issue, however, is far from over. Virtuoso expects majority members in the legislature to offer another resolution, perhaps in time for next Tuesday's meeting, proposing that instead of free health care, the lawmakers pay 20% of the cost.

Virtuoso says it doesn't go far enough.

"No. They're just giving out crumbs and then trying to sugar coat it," he said.

Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Dave Harrington.

Click here to read Dave McKinley's latest blogs.



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