By Sabina Mollot
New York’s veterans who will soon be eligible for a new pension buyback, through legislation recently signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, can thank a Stuyvesant Town veteran for the opportunity.
Jerry Alperstein, a Vietnam War Navy veteran, 72, and original Stuyvesant Town resident, had been pushing the legislation since 2005. This is when he, then serving as the legislative chair of the Jewish War Veterans of New York Post 1, sent a proposal memo to members of the state Assembly. A year later, Assembly Member Amy Paulin, of Scarsdale, signed on as a sponsor of a bill and in 2007, then-State Senator Vincent Leibel became a sponsor in that chamber.
During a recent interview, Alperstein explained that this bill will allow all veterans who served honorably and are employed by the State of New York, its municipalities or its school districts in perpetuity to buy back up to three years of military time toward their pension while still employed.
According to Alperstein, the law brings New York State more in line with most other states in their consideration for veterans who are public employees. Prior to its signing, which happened on May 31, there were other pension buyback opportunities, but they were time-limited to the point that many people they were intended for found themselves unable to collect.
A 1976 law gave the buyback only to World War II veterans; but those who were public employees on 20-year retirement had already retired and were no longer eligible to buy back. A 2000 law only applied to those who served during specified periods of armed conflict. This meant that virtually all Korean War veterans had already retired as were the Vietnam War veterans on 20-year retirements.
“That’s a reprehensible history of buybacks,” said Alperstein. “They called the Korean War the forgotten war and that’s exactly what it was.”
Alperstein and the late past JWV Department Commander William Singer, who were both recipients of the 2000 buyback, had worked together on getting the new bill to see the light of day. For the first few years though, the JWV seemed to be on its own.
“Over time, support for the bill started to increase,” Alperstein said. “It was picked up by the other veterans’ organizations and the civil service labor union.”
Then came a hiccup — Leibel left the Senate after getting indicted on charges of tax evasion. But sponsorship was picked up by Senator William Larkin, who, apparently has no relation to an Assembly member named William Larkin who represented Peter Cooper Village in the 1960s.
Again, years went by until the legislation was passed by both houses in 2014. But then it was vetoed that year and again in 2015 by Cuomo, who’d expressed his concern about the expense. Cuomo had also wanted to limit the benefit solely to veterans who served during times of active combat. But, Alperstein argued, including at a press conference for the bill on May 24, “that’s absurd,” since even without combat, there are other dangers involved in military duty.
“If you were in the West Point Band in 1970, and then went on to be a music teacher in New York State, you’d qualify for the 2000 buyback,” he said, “but if you worked on an aircraft carrier in 1980, you’d see nothing, and that is much more dangerous.”
What ultimately got the bill signed however, Alperstein believes, was its timing. In prior years the bill had been sent to the governor’s office in November or December, which meant that in order to override his veto, there would have had to have been a special session to do this, and there wasn’t. This time, the bill was sent to the governor in May, which would have given the legislature an opportunity to attempt a veto override in June, had there been a veto. After getting the bill, there was a 10-day window to sign or veto.
Though Cuomo eventually did sign on, it was not without adding a memorandum. The memorandum said he approved it so long as the legislature would come up with the funds to pay for it. Alperstein guessed this will delay its implementation to sometime next year.
Meanwhile, this wasn’t the first time Alperstein was involved in a successful attempt to get state legislation passed.
In 2014, legislation Alperstein had helped draft, also relating to pension credits, was signed. That one, however, was an amendment to an existing law that benefitted a much smaller group — around 60-70 veterans. The new law, he feels, could be the most important veteran legislation to date though he doesn’t know ultimately how many people will be eligible or how much it will cost.
He’s also been involved in the crafting of other veteran legislation and was active in the fight a decade ago to prevent the closure of the Manhattan VA Medical Center.
Alperstein has had a long career working for the Department of Education, mostly as a teacher. Prior to that he was the editor of this newspaper.