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Union opposition imperils pension benefits bill

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The state’s largest public-employee union has signaled opposition to a bill that would restore pension benefits to 12 employees in Jefferson County, imperiling both the workers’ retirement plans and development agencies’ restructuring plans.

The Civil Service Employees Association, which represents 66,000 state, county and local workers in New York and holds considerable sway in Albany, objects to the bill’s passage in the state Assembly as written, said Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa.

“We certainly don’t want to see this derailed so close to passage,” Mrs. Russell said.

The bill was introduced in early May, but the CSEA’s objection to the bill wasn’t known until this week. The compressed time frame set off a whirlwind of activity among state legislators who represent Jefferson County. Bills must sit on legislators’ desks for three days before they’re passed, so if the lawmakers can come to a deal to placate the union’s concerns, it has to happen in time to amend the bill and introduce it by Monday. The legislative session ends Thursday.

CSEA officials could not be reached to comment Friday afternoon. Mrs. Russell said they objected to the part of the law that would have allowed the employees to keep accruing pension benefits until the year’s end. That would have given the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency time to come up with a different retirement plan for the employees and time to contemplate an entirely different corporate structure.

Mrs. Russell said she’d amend the bill so that employees could get their pension credits back and keep receiving them until Aug. 1.

“The concern is that there was improper activity going on, and just a sense of not wanting to reward activity by giving them a whole year to get their place in order, so to speak,” Mrs. Russell said. “I can understand their concern about that. Hopefully, I can talk with them about this amendment, and they can remove their opposition.”

Unions have also been at odds with IDAs and similar organizations over the agencies’ ability to skirt prevailing wage requirements.

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli announced in February a move to revoke pension benefits from 12 employees of IDA spin-off agencies, known as local development corporations.

The employees worked directly for the IDA, the workers and the IDA argued and so they were entitled to state retirement benefits. The comptroller, though, believes the employees are employed by the local development corporations, which are nonprofit corporations and not government entities.

Advocates for the employees say their retirement plans, which some have been counting on for as long as 17 years, shouldn’t be caught up in an arcane legal dispute.

A state law would have restored the benefits based on the belief that while they might not have been properly enrolled in the pension system, it would be unfair to punish them for a mistake that was made almost two decades ago.

“This bill is about 12 people who thought they were in the retirement system,” said state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton. “They’re at no fault of their own. They ended up in this predicament. I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that this gets done, one way or the other, to help those 12 people.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she would amend the Senate version of the bill to reflect the union’s concern, but added it wasn’t ideal.

Donald C. Alexander, the IDA’s CEO, said changing the legislation’s effective date could prove problematic for its plans to reform.

“Of course, the implication could be significant when one considers the complexity and scope of what our agencies do,” he said in an email message. “If we are to change, this could prove to be the equivalent of building a car while driving it down (Interstate) 81 at a hundred miles an hour, and time will be working against us.”

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