Lawmakers must find a solution to ranger, ECO turnover

Just before the start of the New Year, Gov. Kathy Hochul vetoed a bill that would have allowed forest rangers and environmental conservation officers — along with university police and state park police — to retire with benefits after 20 years of service, rather than 25 years.

Twenty-year retirement plans are already offered to officers by other law enforcement agencies around the state, including New York State Police, but for some reason rangers and ECOs aren’t offered the same.

Why is this disparity so significant? Well, given the choice between a higher-paying job that allows an earlier retirement and a job that doesn’t pay as much and requires you wait longer to retire, which would you choose?

Manny Vilar — the president of the union that represents rangers and ECOs, the Police Benevolent Association of New York State — has pointed to this benefit disparity as one of the big reasons that rangers and ECOs leave their jobs for other law enforcement agencies. It may also be one of many reasons why more people look for a job with the State Police rather than the state Department of Environmental Conservation in the first place.

All the while, the need for more rangers and ECOs continues to grow, not only in the Adirondacks but in metropolitan areas of this state, where ECOs regularly find violators of environmental laws.

The state spends a significant amount of money training new rangers and ECOs, only to lose them to other law enforcement agencies just a few years after they complete their training, Vilar told CNHI’s Joe Mahoney this month.

“They are literally throwing away millions of dollars every year,” he told CNHI. “Our guys are leaving for greener pastures, rightfully so.”

The bill vetoed by Hochul wouldn’t have completely solved that problem, but it would’ve helped to level the playing field.

It’s important to note that taking this step, according to the bill, would’ve cost the state approximately $4.7 million in the current fiscal year alone, plus a one-time, immediate “past service cost” of around $48.2 million. To give that cost a little context: The state’s 2021-22 budget totaled $212 billion — the largest budget in the state’s history, according to state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

Hochul had her reasons for vetoing the bill. She has mentioned that there isn’t money set aside in the budget to cancel out the expense, and that she believes that benefit adjustments should be hashed out with unions through collective bargaining. She acknowledged that “there’s a growing concern about the current level of retirement benefits and its impact on the agencies’ ability to recruit and retain the best officers,” but rather than sign the bill that was overwhelmingly approved by the Legislature, she suggested that she wants to have discussions with union leaders and other officials to talk about ways to reduce turnover, according to CNHI.

The Legislature can overturn Hochul’s veto, but that seems unlikely at this point.

The bottom line: We need forest rangers, we need ECOs, and we can’t expect rangers and ECOs to continue to be rangers and ECOs if their benefits are not on par with roles at other law enforcement agencies. We can’t expect people to choose a career as a forest ranger or an ECO in the first place if they can recieve better benefits as a state trooper or a municipal police officer.

Something needs to change.

We hope that Hochul does have discussions with union leaders and other officials about ways to solve this problem — and we hope that solutions aren’t years away.


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