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St. Clare's pensioners rally at State Capitol

St. Clare's pensioners rally at State Capitol

Bill would block hospital corporation's dissolution until finances better understood
St. Clare's pensioners rally at State Capitol
St. Clare's pensioners rally with lawmakers at the state Capitol on Monday.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

CAPITOL -- Marty Mack worked as a nurse for 52 years at the former St. Clare's Hospital in Schenectady, and says the pension crisis has only cut her benefits about 25 percent.

Nevertheless, Mack came from her retirement home in North Carolina to Albany on Monday to rally with some of the other 1,100 people who have either lost or are threatened with losing their retirement income because of the collapse of the St. Clare's pension plan.

"The impact is biggest on the husbands and wives, the people in minimum wage jobs, who get nothing," Mack said during the rally held in the state Capitol at the Million Dollar Staircase.

Roughly 100 people -- about 10 percent of those affected, most of whom live in the Schenectady region -- gathered at the Capitol to urge the state to at least investigate what happened to the pension plan, which announced it was running out of money last fall. Many attendees held up handmade signs with such themes as "Save Our Pension," "Help Heal the Healers," and "Gov. Cuomo, We Need Your Help."

It was the first time the pensioners have held such a rally, though they have previously held private meetings with legislators, Catholic leadership and others.

"There's a lot more who wanted to be here, but they had to work," said Bob Bradley, a co-leader of the pensioners.

State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, whose district includes the hospital, introduced legislation in May that would block dissolution of the St. Clare's Corporation until the questions surrounding the evaporation of the pension fund have been answered. The corporation is currently in state Supreme Court in Schenectady seeking to dissolve, saying the corporation no longer has any assets.

State Attorney General Letitia James' office has filed a motion to stop the dissolution for now, the first time that a statewide official has weighed in despite pensioners' call for involvement from high-level state officials.

One of the goals of the rally was to promote Tedisco's bill, in the long-shot hope that it will come to a vote before the state Legislature adjourns on Wednesday.

"We're all here today because we know it's the last three days of session, but there's a lot of unfinished business when it comes to these poor people who have lost their pensions," said Assemblywoman Mary Beth Walsh, R-Ballston.

Tedisco, whose party is in the minority in both chambers of the Legislature, acknowledged he didn't expect a vote on his bill. "They're not going to pass it, but if it was 1,100 of their constituents, they would," he told the crowd, referring to the Democratic majorities.

One Democrat legislator at the rally, Assemblyman Phil Steck, D-Colonie, said the solution has to be a joint action between the state and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany. The state put up $28.5 million toward the Catholic hospital's pension obligations when a state health care commission recommended closing St. Clare's in 2008.

The pension fund, which had revenue coming in, suffered losses during the 2008 financial crisis, Steck said.

"They held up their end of the bargain," Steck said, speaking of the pension recipients. "All we are saying with this bill is, 'Don't dissolve this corporation without getting to this bottom of this.'"

Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara, D-Rotterdam, who sponsored the Assembly version of the Tedisco bill, said he was disappointed that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office hasn't responded to his letters on the issue; no one from the governor's staff came to Monday's rally. Some pensioners, however, did present a petition to the governor's office on Monday.

Santabarbara praised the attorney general's involvement, though. "I think with the attorney general's involvement, we won't see dissolution of this corporation until these questions are resolved," he said.

James' office did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.

The former employees have seen their pensions either reduced or eliminated due to a pension fund shortfall now estimated at $53.5 million. Many years earlier, the financially troubled hospital had used a rule available to church-affiliated institutions to stop paying into the federal pension insurance system, which ultimately left the pensioners without a government-guaranteed safety net after the system's collapse.

St. Clare's was absorbed by Ellis Medicine -- where some vested in the St. Clare's pension still work -- but one of the conditions of the takeover was that the state would make a payment to cover the outstanding pension obligations Ellis would otherwise have inherited.

"This isn't a giveway," Santabarbarbara said. "This is a promise and commitment [pensioners] have earned."

Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 518-395-3086, [email protected] or @gazettesteve on Twitter.

 

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