Hochul vetoes bill that would extend retirement benefits to rangers, conservation officers

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ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill aimed at setting retirement eligibility for forest rangers and environmental conservation officers on par with other state law enforcers. 

Hochul attributed her rejection to her view that benefit adjustments should be bargained. She added that the state budget did not include funds to offset the cost.

The bill called for a one-time contribution of $48.2 million. The first annual contribution ending in March would have cost about $4.7 million, according to the legislation text.

Hochul’s dismissal disappointed lawmakers and the Police Benevolent Association of New York which said the longer service time needed for retirement benefits makes it more difficult to recruit and retain environmental officers, especially downstate. An override vote appears unlikely. 

State Sen. Andrew Gournardes, a Brooklyn Democrat, introduced the measure to make the benefit available after 20 years of duty, five years sooner than now. It would have covered environmental conservation officers, forest rangers, police officers in the state Department of Environmental Conservation, regional state park police and university police. 

Matthew Krug, director of environmental conservation officers and investigators for the PBA, said State Police and other agencies get far more candidates for jobs that pay more and allow for earlier retirement. Fewer than 2,000 candidates took the Civil Service exam for conservation officers in 2019, Krug said, while 18,000 people took the State Police exam. The governor’s veto was another blow to his colleagues, who are working their shifts with more than 60 vacancies statewide, Krug said.

The bill would be most beneficial for recruiting officers for the New York City area, Krug said, where more investigators are needed to collect evidence for industrial pollution crimes and policing illegal trade in endangered species. It would also help with recruitment upstate, he said, where job duties continue to grow.

At the end of last year, Hochul signed a bill giving DEC officers the task of inspecting boats for invasive species. Similar regulations around the transportation of firewood were passed a couple of years ago. 

“They’re not giving us additional people for enforcing it,” Krug said. “You can’t keep piling on more stuff.”

Krug, who covers the Washington County region, said a retirement after 20 years of service is desired because of the toll the job can take on officers. He and colleagues have sustained injuries from incidents such as helping hikers off mountains and chasing trespassers.

In her Dec. 29 veto, Hochul said she was aware of “a growing concern about the current level of retirement benefits and its impact on the agencies’ ability to recruit and retain the best officers.” She suggested meeting this year to discuss the issue.

Michael Bucci, spokesperson for the police union, said they are ready to negotiate a contract with the governor, saying a deal is nearly three years overdue. He envisioned the retirement plan becoming part of the upcoming budget negotiations. 

In an emailed statement, Gournardes said he looks forward to the meetings and does not expect the state Legislature to override Hochul’s veto despite the bill’s overwhelming legislative support. Two thirds of the Legislature would have to vote in support of overriding a veto, a rare event and unexpected in this case, said Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake.

“I think we’re looking at going back at it and working on it,” Jones said. “We want to keep that workforce. We need that workforce, especially here in the Adirondacks.”

State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, said he understood Hochul’s position about the expense but still felt she should have signed it. “We should be trying to be supportive of law enforcement in any way we can,” he said.

A version of this story appeared in AdirondackExplorer.org.