Raymond fund will help children of DEC officers pay for college
By Gwendolyn Craig
The widow of an Adirondacks-based environmental conservation officer has started an annual scholarship in memory of her late husband, who died from cancers related to service at Ground Zero in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Shari Raymond started the $2,500 ECO Stephen L. Raymond Memorial Scholarship using accidental death benefit funds state leaders set up for her this year, following a lengthy legislative process.
The scholarship is open to any child or grandchild of active or retired officers attending an accredited two- or four-year college. It is administered by the New York Conservation Officers Association and can be used for any college expenses.
Mary Frano Grose, treasurer of the association, said the scholarship’s first recipient was Orange County resident Giana Bello, a second-year student at Pace University in Pleasantville. Bello is studying to become a physician’s assistant. She is the daughter of Michael Bello, an environmental conservation officer lieutenant with the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), serving in Region 3.
“(Shari Raymond) was very excited about being able to share her hard work and passing on the legacy from her husband to help the EnCon (environmental conservation) community,” Grose said.
Shari Raymond has had an uphill battle getting the accidental death benefit. Stephen Raymond died on April 17, 2017 from lung, bone and brain cancer. The 67-year-old had served with the DEC for about two decades, ending his patrol in the Adirondacks in Warren County. Stephen Raymond was one of an unknown number of DEC officers to assist with the aftermath of 9/11. He had served for approximately 225 hours at the World Trade Center site, records showed.
At the time of his death, Shari Raymond did not know her husband’s cancers could be linked to exposure at Ground Zero. Her brother, Ulster County Undersheriff Eric Benjamin, suggested there could have been a connection and Shari Raymond began the process of having her husband’s medical records reviewed.
The state pays accidental death benefits to New York State and Local Retirement System members who die from natural and proximate results of an on-the-job accident not due to their willful negligence, according to the state Office of the Comptroller. There is a two-year deadline for families to file for these benefits, a deadline Shari Raymond missed.
To receive the death benefit, Shari Raymond lobbied lawmakers for legislation deeming her application timely. State Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, and state Assemblyman Matthew Simpson, R-Horicon, sponsored the bill. It passed the state Assembly and Senate last summer and Gov. Kathy Hochul signed the bill in January.
There has been confusion interpreting the legislation and how the payment works. The bill stated Shari Raymond would be paid $2.07 million “based on the assumption that payment will be made on March 1, 2023.” But the payment is not in a lump sum, the comptroller’s office said. The $2.07 million is an estimated payout based on a lump sum payment owed since Stephen Raymond’s death and a monthly payment assumed to start on March 1 until Shari Raymond dies.
“It is the expected cost long-term for the retirement system,” said Jennifer Freeman, communications director with the state comptroller’s office, adding that it was a pension and not a life insurance payment.
Freeman said Shari Raymond was paid $476,627 in a lump sum, and will receive $6,017.96 a month for the rest of her life. The payments are state and federal tax free, Freeman said, “and will increase if cost of living increases occur.”
Shari Raymond was skeptical she would receive the full $2.07 million from the state.
But she was excited to start the memorial scholarship program. Shari Raymond said she has made it her “mission to help other law enforcement 9/11 widows get their benefits denied to them.” There have been at least two others in the state with similar application deadline issues. Shari Raymond said she helped Audra Lakeman, the widow of State Police trooper Lawrence Lakeman, get a bill passed in the Legislature for an accidental death benefit. The Lakemans are from western New York. Shari Raymond said she is working with another widow of an environmental conservation officer from central New York on a similar bill.
Grose said Shari Raymond’s advocacy has been important to the environmental conservation community.