ALBANY — Former employees of the old St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady got multiple pledges of help from state legislators during a meeting Monday, but no clear path toward getting their pensions restored.
More than 1,100 pensioners have seen their monthly payments reduced or halted recently as the pension fund runs short of money to pay them. Older ex-employees are getting less and younger ex-employees are getting nothing in an attempt to stretch the pension fund to last the lifetimes of the older pensioners.
The crisis has been building for decades, but the questions and answers at Monday evening’s meeting revealed how much is still unknown by the pensioners and their allies about who made the decisions that caused the shortfall, why and when. Or whether anyone can be held responsible now.
The handful of pensioners who braved the cold to attend asked many of the same questions Monday that they’ve been asking for months. And apparently, leaders of the fight have far less than 100 percent participation from their former colleagues: They’re still looking for ways to get a full list of names of the 1,100 people affected.
The consensus among the leaders present seemed to be that no solution would be possible without participation of one or more state agencies and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.
The diocese, which had close ties to St. Clare’s but denies any responsibility for its problems, did not send any officials to Monday’s meeting. The state, which ordered the financially ailing hospital closed in 2008 and provided a pension bailout that proved inadequate, also rejects responsibility, and hasn’t responded to requests for an investigation.
State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, whose district includes the former St. Clare’s campus, now part of Ellis Medicine, said the pensioners would likely see better results raising their plight with the governor and the state comptroller than the legislators would.
Joining him Monday were Assemblymen Phil Steck, D-Colonie; Angelo Santa Barbara, D-Rotterdam; and John McDonald, D-Cohoes; Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam; and a staff member with Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, D-Albany.
A few of them said the same thing independently of each other: The governor and the legislative leaders are pursuing an ambitious and expensive agenda of their own. To hand over tens of millions of dollars for a second pension bailout for a single hospital is going to be low on their priority list, which is why Tedisco urged pensioners to bring their cases forward themselves.
“I think it’s going to be very difficult now because we’re upstate New York,” Tedisco said, noting that full control of state government rests with downstate Democrats.
The pensioners are constituents of various legislators, he said. “They are 100 percent the governor’s constituents. He should be more concerned than any of us because these are all of his concerns.”
Steck said there was no money for St. Clare’s in the governor’s budget proposal, but there’s a chance of getting it into the legislative leaders’ budget proposals. He was busy during the meeting texting various colleagues in the Assembly, where he’s a member of the majority and has a chance of getting some attention to the matter. The Senate is another matter.
He said with the new Senate leadership, he and his staff have to relearn how to advance matters in that chamber.
“This is a new relationship. We always knew who to call in Jim Tedisco’s office.”
He repeated an earlier prediction: If the state is going to help make the pensioners whole, the diocese will have to be part of the solution.
The diocese has long said it won’t be. It is taking a more compassionate tone now, and offering to help find a solution, but still not offering money.
“Our priority has to be get that meeting with the diocese and come to an agreement on what each of us can do,” Santabarbara said. “Because the budget process is rolling. The longer we wait, the less likely we can even do something this year.”
The reason so many questions are unanswered after so long is that all the parties haven’t been together in the same room, he said. “That has to be our short-term goal.”
McDonald suggested a multi-tiered approach at the state level: An investigation by the state Comptroller’s Office into what happened to the first bailout, as Tedisco suggests, but also a review by the state Attorney General’s Office, which has oversight of nonprofits.
“I do believe the state does have an opportunity to be a partner in this process but it’s hard to convince the state to participate until we know exactly what happened here,” McDonald said.
David Pratt, an Albany Law School professor who hosted Monday’s meeting at the school, said the Attorney General’s Office has been contacted but it has not replied.
Pratt has been advising the retirees without charge but also without the ability to represent them. He recently has helped arrange representation by two attorneys, including Victoria Esposito of the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, who said Monday she has taken on a second St. Clare’s pensioner as a client.
Legal representation is potentially important, Esposito and Pratt said, because a ruling or settlement in favor of even one pensioner could establish a precedent for others.
After the meting, Bob Bradley of Clifton Park said he had mixed feelings.
He had an admittedly remote hope that one of the legislators would announce budget funding, but exactly the opposite happened.
“But I’m encouraged that six lawmakers or their staff came to the meeting, they listened to our concerns, they gave advice. It sounded like they were going to take some initiative,” he said.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. We’ll just keep on fighting, fighting, fighting. We’ll get there.”
Beyond all questions of responsibility and cause is the stress and pain of this pension crisis. The youngest of the pensioners are well on in years, and suddenly seeing a chunk of their income evaporating.
“At my age I can’t go back and get another job,” said Bonnie Benson of Charlton, a 37-year St. Clare’s veteran. Compounding that, she still hasn’t been told what her pension check will be.
“They won’t give her any information,” said her husband, Ken.
“Somebody has to get together. It sounded to me like the politicians are willing to do that, which is very refreshing to me.”