By Gwendolyn Craig
The union representative for New York’s forest rangers used his colleague’s death by suicide as an example of why lawmakers and Gov. Kathy Hochul should pass a 20-year retirement bill, and indicated its earlier enactment could have saved the officer’s life.
Capt. Christopher Kostoss, a state forest ranger for 23 years, died by suicide on May 31 last year in Essex County. In June, the 49-year-old was recognized in a funeral service with law enforcement honors at Whiteface Mountain in Wilmington. He was a member of the Wilmington Fire Department.
Arthur Perryman, director at the Police Benevolent Association for rangers, testified before lawmakers Tuesday night about how rangers and environmental conservation officers have not yet received a 20-year retirement benefit similar to that provided to other state law enforcers. His appeal was part of an environmental conservation budget hearing, where lawmakers in the state Senate and Assembly collect wish lists and hash out finances before a final budget is approved at the beginning of April.
Most law enforcement personnel are able to retire with full benefits at 20 years of service, but some branches including environmental conservation officers and rangers, must serve 25 years. A bill to make the service time equal passed the state Legislature last year, but Hochul vetoed it, arguing that the benefit should be part of collective bargaining.
Before a dwindling group of lawmakers about 10 hours into the day’s hearing, Perryman talked about Kostoss and the stresses of being a ranger.
“He needed and wanted to retire,” Perryman said. “Had Chris been able to walk away and take care of himself, he might still be with us today.”
In his written testimony, Perryman described the barrage of search-and-rescue missions last year. In the spring, a few rangers spent the night searching for a climber on Giant Mountain in the High Peaks. The climber was later found alive, but with two broken legs. Around the same time, Perryman wrote, a hiker on another mountain had a heart attack and died. The Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported on the rescues, and noted the hiker death was on Scarface Mountain.
“Forest Ranger Captain Chris Kostoss was on scene that day managing resources, moving equipment and coordinating with aviation. He was in his element, handling it with the good humor and attitude Chris was known for,” Perryman wrote in additional testimony. “For a lot of us that would be the last time we would see our friend Chris alive. Sadly, about a week later Chris took his life while on duty.”
Kostoss’ obit referred to him as “an introspective minimalist.”
“He was actively involved in suicide prevention among law enforcement,” the obit continued. “Chris was a loving father, a loyal and caring friend, a dedicated Ranger, and a good person. His manner of death does not change that. He believed in destigmatizing talk about mental health and believed that seeking help for mental health should be a routine part of health care.”
Several state lawmakers expressed their support for the retirement benefit following Perryman’s testimony.
“I fully support including the 20-year retirement bill,” said state Sen. Michelle Hinchey, a Democrat from the Catskills. “I think we need to and we’ll be fighting for that.”
Assemblymember Deborah Glick, chair of the environmental conservation committee, thanked Perryman and rangers for helping carry some of the “people from my part of the world” off mountains. The Manhattan Democrat noted some of the unprepared hikers who get rescued are from the city.
Several Republican lawmakers stated their support for the retirement bill. Assemblyman John Lemondes Jr., from Lafayette, said he couldn’t believe “we’re even having to debate that.”