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Attorneys draw up law that would give pensions back to 12

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Twelve workers who had counted on retirement benefits from the state only to have them stripped away could get those benefits back if legislators can rally support for a proposed state law.

But the first draft of the law could use some work, the legislators said after meeting Tuesday in Albany with lawyers for the employer.

“It’s somewhat of a complex issue,” said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa. “I don’t want to pass legislation that doesn’t really address all of the issues that are of concern.”

At issue are a dozen employees at development agencies in Jefferson County. The employees believed that they were entitled to New York state retirement benefits by virtue of their work for the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency; in one case, an employee accrued 17 years’ worth of credits.

But state Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli ruled the employees did not actually work for the IDA, a bona fide government agency — they worked for nonprofit agencies called “local development corporations.”

The subtle legal distinction was revealed two years ago in an opinion from Mr. DiNapoli, who oversees the pension fund for government workers in the state. Earlier this year, Mr. DiNapoli officially ruled that their pensions had been revoked.

The employees still have the right to an administrative appeal, which would take months. Legislators could pass a state law, which would save time and money for the IDA in legal challenges.

But perhaps not with the bill as drafted by attorneys at Harris Beach, an Albany law firm, and reviewed by Jefferson County attorneys.

“It’s not a cut-and-dried issue,” Mrs. Russell said. “I believe it’s going to take a little bit of time to find out how we’re going to come to a solution of this issue.”

For example, she said, the proposed law does not address whether the employees would continue to receive pension credits going forward. She’s also not sure whether it strikes at the heart of the matter: that the comptroller’s office does not deem the affected employees legitimate IDA workers.

Graham Wise, the chief of staff for state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, said that the Republican of Heuvelton had spoken on the phone with Mr. DiNapoli in the past few days about the issue, and that he would not budge in his opinion about the employees.

Like Mrs. Russell, Mr. Wise suggested that the language put forward by IDA lawyers would need to be revised. He said that it might not be specific enough to the 12 employees who are at risk of losing their pension benefits.

“Senator Ritchie conceptually supports the idea. There could be the need for tweaking some language,” Mr. Wise said. “We have counsel looking at the language that was presented to us.”

Like his fellow legislators who represent Jefferson County, state Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, said that he supports efforts to win back pension credits for the 12 employees, but that revisions might be necessary.

“If there’s any way that we could make it right for the employees, I would certainly support home rule legislation,” he said.

He said that he met Tuesday with Mrs. Ritchie, attorneys for the IDA and two IDA officials: David J. Converse, the chairman of the IDA board, and Donald C. Alexander, the state authority’s CEO.

On Tuesday evening, the Jefferson County Legislature’s Finance and Rules Committee unanimously passed a resolution requesting that the state Legislature pass the law. The measure will go to the full board for approval.

“This will save the IDA a great deal of money” while also allowing the individuals to receive the retirement plan they were promised, said Jefferson County Legislator Michael J. Docteur, R-Cape Vincent.

Mr. Docteur is the county’s representative on the IDA board.

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