Advocates look to contract and budget negotiations
By Gwendolyn Craig
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 2022 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.
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 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 when the jobs 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 tight 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.
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Michael Bucci, spokesperson for the police union, said the union is ready to address 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 looked forward to the meetings and did 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.
“Fewer than 2,000 candidates took the Civil Service exam for conservation officers in 2019”
For how many job openings?
I don’t know about University police and others that were intended to be upgraded as well, but I definitely feel the Ranger force should be on par with State Police WRT retirement age. It is a very physical job. But if she wants to save money, should she consider RAISING the retirement ages of State Police?? That would go over in Albany like a fart in church.
Bottom line is, you get what you pay for. If you want strong enforcement and a healthy Park, you need feet on the ground patrolling – not just in pickups responding to emergencies. Far too often Albany seems to view the Park as an island off in the distance somewhere that doesn’t really matter. Out of sight, out of mind. We ALL need to keep reminding them the importance of a healthy Forest Preserve. It isn’t an “ordinary” State Forest. People live here and depend on a strong Park infrastructure.
louis curth says
With Covid surging, outdoor recreational use of our Adirondack and Catskill public lands has never been greater. At the same time the essential skills users need for safe, low impact use of our wildlands has never been more inadequate. Our current forest rangers are being squeezed to the breaking point by too few forest rangers trying to handle too many urgent demands. Something has to change!
For Adirondackers – and all of us – who want our wildland visitors to continue to have safe, enjoyable outdoor adventures here – and come back again – we must work together to support a long overdue overhaul of the 137 year old NYS Forest Rangers.
Our forest ranger force needs to be revamped significantly. The future will require a larger and more diverse forest ranger force that can protect, educate and relate professionally to the changing demographic of visitors coming to recreate in our public wildlands.
I would call your attention to the “Forever Adirondacks Campaign” article by John Sheehan in the Adirondack Almanack of 12/14/21. It outlines one such plan for a how this goal might be accomplished – if we all work together.
Take it from a retired NYS Forest Ranger with many, many years of service, this need is real and it is urgent!
So sad I never got to work with you Lou. You are articulate, compassionate, and intelligent.
Duff Layer says
Don’t vote for her.
So sad I never got to work with you Lou. You are articulate, compassionate, and intelligent.
The retirement for Forest Rangers should be on par with other law enforcement at “20 years and done”. Their job is physically and mentally demanding not to mention extremely dangerous. Rangers deserve to be, “eligible to retire with full benefits at any age after completing 20 full years of creditable service” as other law enforcement currently are.
The class of new Forest Rangers should begin training this Spring but how many will be assigned to the High Peaks as opposed to downstate/Long Island? They are needed here in the High Peaks to provide some relief to the few existing Rangers assigned here. There have been a number of back-to-back rescues of late requiring Rangers to clear one scene and head directly to the next.
Education of the hiking public is key and there just aren’t enough Rangers to be at busy trailheads, patrolling popular trails and rescuing people. The academy is a good start but the Governor needs to realize that regular funding is needed to protect the valuable resource that is the Forest Preserve and its Forest Rangers.
Seriously, they’re not on par with the State Police or other law enforcement officers that put their lives on the line every day and are a target just by virtue of wearing their uniform. Like the military, who also risk their lives every day, the State Police and other law enforcement officers have a 20 year full retirement benefit plan. Most of the regular state and local public servants have a 30 year full retirement benefit plan. Rangers and others in this group have a 25 year full retirement benefit plan. When you add that to the generous holiday, vacation, sick leave and retirement health insurance plans that most of us regular folks could only dream of, I get a little tired of the incessant whining. Like they say, pigs get fed; hogs get slaughtered.
Tom Paine says
Here is a novel idea. The monies in the NYS budget to purchase lands in Adirondack Park. Divert some of that funding for increased manpower for NYS Forest Rangers. Or perhaps shift the NYS Police to strictly major highway patrol only, use the county sheriffs for local work and divert that funding for rangers.
Not sure relocating the NYSP to major highways is a viable option for the state, especially in the ADKS. No disrespect to Sheriff’s Offices but they don’t have the manpower. Hamilton County has four (4) full time deputies and three (3) part time.
Herkimer County has seven (7) deputies and I don’t believe they have a road patrol. The NYSP may actually be the best police agency in the nation and it is paid for by all New Yorkers, why wouldn’t everyone in the State be entitled to the services that they provide.
Is there currently a mandatory retirement age for Forest Rangers and Environmental Conservation Officers?