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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

MTA wants pensioner's wife to pay back cash it sent them in error

Harry Findel and his wife Shirley during the

Harry Findel and his wife Shirley during the 1980s. Credit: Shirley Findel

Shirley Findel, the wife of a deceased Long Island Rail Road engineer who received almost $27,000 in excess pension payments, thinks the MTA should give her a pass.

The MTA strongly believes otherwise.

Findel and her husband, Harry, did what they were supposed to in filling out paperwork for the pension, which they began receiving in 1995.

Those overpayments might have continued, except that after her husband died in September at 83, Findel did another thing right: She notified the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

From there, the MTA determined that, whoops, it had been paying out too much pension money for more than 18 1/2 years.

"I have the paper Harry signed, we gave them the paper and we figured everything was fine," Findel told a Newsday reporter recently.

"I wake up thinking about this and I go to sleep thinking about this."

The MTA agrees the pension overpayments were the result of MTA mistakes -- not the couple's.

Nonetheless, the authority wants its money back.

According to a Newsday report, Findel, who will be 80 next month, initially was offered the option to pay the money back in full, or via losing $380.89 in monthly pension benefits until the debt is repaid.

The latest offer is down to a $240 per month reduction. An MTA spokesman said Friday that negotiations were continuing.

According to the MTA, Findel should have been receiving $380.89 a month -- but the amount was instead incorrectly processed as $504.89.

There might have been a time when the MTA might have acknowledged and accepted the consequences of its mistake.

These days, the MTA, like almost everybody else, needs money -- and as part of what a spokesman called its fiduciary responsibility, the agency is determined to recover it from Findel.

Given recent reports of systemic abuse of the pension system by some Long Island Rail Road employees, it makes sense for the MTA to carefully track payments and review its system for errors.

And for the MTA to correct errors when officials find them.

All of that needs to happen, and keep on happening.

But still.

Findel has lost her husband, and a full monthly payment that, after more than 18 years, she had ample reason to assume would continue.

Findel said she could not afford to immediately repay the full amount; or to go without the $380.89 a month. The loss of even $240 every month could have left her financially squeezed.

Except that on Friday -- after inquiries from Newsday -- another agency, the federal Railroad Retirement Board, told Findel that they, too, had made a mistake.

And that correcting it would give her $400 a month in widow benefits, beginning almost immediately.

That should help take some of the pressure off.

Nonetheless, the MTA and Findel should keep negotiating, with an eye toward some fair, quick compromise.

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