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St. Lawrence County adopts workers' compensation formula

By Martha Ellen, Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 26--CANTON -- The St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators approved a workers' compensation formula Monday it believes is more fair than its present system even though several municipal leaders complained they had not had time to study it.

"This is a better system than what we've had in the past even though it may cost my municipality more," Legislator Vernon D. "Sam" Burns, D-Ogdensburg, said.

For years, the county has used a formula for the self-insurance plan so that participating towns, villages and the city of Ogdensburg pay their annual share based on 70 percent property assessment and 30 percent on the amount paid for experience over the past three years.

Legislators do not believe that property assessment has anything to do with workers' compensation.

"We have not allocated workers' compensation fairly ever. I think it's wrong the way we've been doing it," Legislative Frederick S. Morrill, D-DeKalb Junction, said. "Workers' compensation should be about shared risk. I believe this will provide an incentive for worker safety. I think we've got a good formula. I think it needs some tweaking."

The formula, adopted by a vote of 9-5, with Legislator Jim A. Bunstone, D-Potsdam, absent, will reduce the ratio assigned to property assessment from 70 percent in 2015 to 60 percent in 2016 and 50 percent in 2017. It places employees into risk categories. For example, a highway worker is high risk while an office worker has a lower risk. The formula also transfers to the county the cost of insuring firefighters and rescue squad workers, whether they are volunteer or paid.

Taking a bite out of municipal costs could help keep the fire service going in some smaller towns, Legislator Anthony J. Arquiett, D-Helena, said.

Potsdam Mayor Steven W. Yurgartis praised the board for the county takeover of workers' compensation connected to firefighters and rescue squads, but did not believe the plan was ready for adoption yet.

The county has to have some type of plan by Sept. 1, although it could have gone with the status quo.

Mr. Yurgartis, the president of the county Mayors Association, said he had intended to call a special meeting of the group but there was no point because municipalities did not have their calculations until Friday. Mr. Yurgartis urged the board to revisit the formula in another year and spend the time fine-tuning it and looking at ways to reduce costs rather than changing the allocation system.

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He was joined by DeKalb Supervisor John M. Frary and Potsdam Supervisor Marie C. Regan in wanting a delay.

Even with the county takeover of workers' compensation for emergency responders, most towns will not see a reduction, Mr. Frary said. The villages of Massena and Norwood are among the few municipalities that will see a substantial decrease in cost.

Mrs. Regan said the formula has not been explained in a way that municipalities understand and it is not clear that the change helps small towns and makes workers safer.

"I know you wanted it to be fair," she said. "Where do you see it in this plan?"

She said she would look at the cost of the town of Potsdam pulling out of the county's system.

Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon, R-Fowler, suggested extending the current formula for one year.

"I think that would take the sourness out of this thing," he said. "I think we're on the cusp of coming up with something better."

Whether the change takes place immediately or a year from now, some municipalities have been under-paying while others have shouldered an undue burden, Legislator Stephen M. Putman, D-Canton, said.

The formula has not been fully vetted, Legislator Mark H. Akins, R-Lisbon, said.

"I think this is the direction to head in but I think it's bad policy," he said. "It is a rushed policy. I don't think this is even close to where we want to end up."


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