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JCIDA OKs plan to restructure agencies

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Thanks to special state legislation, 12 economic development workers from Jefferson County still get the state pension benefits for past years they’ve worked. But will they now be taken off the state’s retirement roll for good and switch to a private plan, or can local agencies restructure to make them eligible to stay in the system?

It’s a question lawyers representing the employees will endeavor to find a solution for by Aug. 1, when their eligibility to stay in the retirement system will end. The Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency’s board of directors held a special meeting Tuesday to set that plan in motion. But there are still more questions than answers about whether employees who work for Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency’s affiliated nonprofit agencies will remain in the state system or be compelled to sign up for private retirement plans.

The bill approved by the Legislature — which is expected to be signed soon by the governor — overrides a ruling by Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli that contended the 12 employees shouldn’t receive benefits because the nonprofit legal standing of the five organizations they work for made them ineligible for inclusion in the state retirement system. In effect, the ruling said the employees don’t work directly for the JCIDA, which is a state authority.

Now, the crux of the matter is whether employees who work for the five local development corporations, or LDCs, under the umbrella of the JCIDA can still become state employees entitled to benefits. But to be entitled to those benefits, the LDCs must either find a way to change their status as nonprofit agencies, or adopt their own retirement and health care plans.

LDCs include the Watertown Industrial Center Local Development Corp., Jefferson County Job Development Corp., Jefferson County Agricultural Development Corp., Watertown Local Development Corp. and Carthage Industrial Development Corp.

But for the LDCs, it won’t be as simple as changing names around, said attorney Justin S. Miller from Harris Beach, Rochester. The board hired the law firm to lead the negotiations with LDCs on behalf of the JCIDA on Tuesday, and it plans to hold several special meetings in the next month, starting with its next regular board meeting June 12.

“I’ve been given directions to speak with each of the LDCs about the next step, and we’re going to work with them to preserve their best interest,” Mr. Miller said.

LDCs will now need to determine how — and if —they can continue to function on their own, or to seek JCIDA status.The Watertown Local Development Corp. has already started developing a plan to switch retirement and health care plans for its two employees to become a separate corporate entity, said corporation CEO Donald W. Rutherford, who works with executive assistant Kim Taylor.

“My concern is, given the short window of time, how quickly my board will be able to act in terms of putting benefits in place,” he said.

But while it’s going to undoubtedly be a challenge, JCIDA CEO Donald C. Alexander said the organizations need to be restructured swiftly.

“The board decided that we’re going to try to make this work by the end of July,” he said. “But it’s going to be a difficult thing to take these active organizations and take them apart in four weeks.”

The JCIDA board originally thought it would be able to restructure the organizations by Jan. 1, but it’s now suddenly “between a rock and a hard place” with the tight deadline, said David J. Converse, chairman of the JCIDA board of directors.

“We knew that down the road it could come to this, but we didn’t expect it so soon,” he said. “But our emphasis has always been on protecting our employees, so we’re going to work on restructuring the agencies based on the comptroller’s decision.”

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