Cooperstown rallies around ailing police chief

Greg Klein | The Daily Star In this Oct. 16, 2016, file photo, Cooperstown Police Chief Mike Covert speaks as part of the Village Library Sunday Program Series.  

Despite health problems that endanger his life, have potentially cost him his job and have cost him his life savings, Cooperstown Police Chief Mike Covert said he is grateful for the local support he has gotten on a GoFundMe page set up by his former law enforcement partner. 

"I get emotional over it, because I didn't expect any of it," Covert told The Daily Star Monday. "I thought, 'well, I am a police officer, maybe it will raise $100 or something.'" 

Covert, 58, a former Otsego County investigator, Hartwick Volunteer Fire Department member and U.S. Army combat engineer, has been the top law enforcement official in Cooperstown since 2012. He said he took a medical leave of absence in August to deal with several health issues, including heart surgery and kidney failure, and then had a heart attack. He is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant at Albany Medical Center. 

The GoFundMe page was set up by Michael Ten Eyck, Covert's former colleague in the sheriff's office and in Cooperstown, because of medical costs from a one-month gap in Covert's insurance coverage and the high co-pays on his new Medicare plan. The page has been designated a "trending campaign," and it raised more than its initial $10,000 goal in less than a week. As of 2 p.m. Monday, it had raised $13,640 from 152 donors, including fellow law enforcers, politicians from both major parties, officials of the village and the county, and a long list of Cooperstown area people. 

"Otsego County cut off his health benefits after eight years of retirement and the village of Cooperstown won’t allow him to enroll in their health plan as he has been on unpaid administrative leave since (August) of 2018," Ten Eyck wrote on the GoFundMe page. "Mike is presently in the final pre-transplant testing stage for the kidney transplant list at the Albany Medical Center and has huge monthly health related expenses and deductibles for appointments, procedures, co-pays, travel and prescriptions. A month without government healthcare has also put Mike in a huge financial hardship.

"Your generous contribution will help support a long-standing community member, dedicated civil servant and honorably discharged veteran," Ten Eyck's post concluded.

In a follow-up interview Monday, Ten Eyck said he is also grateful for the support his friend has received. 

"I am very thankful the community has reached out to help him with that," Ten Eyck said. 

"Mike is a nice guy," he said. "I think everybody likes him. He is the type of guy who would do anything for you and never ask for anything in return." 

Ten Eyck said he has worked with Covert for about two decades, as his partner in the county and then for him as an officer in Cooperstown. He said Covert has spent his career helping people, pointing to his work in local schools with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, his efforts in Cooperstown to treat the opioid epidemic with education and rehab programs and his work with the county in helping victims of sex crimes. 

According to Covert, he had been receiving health insurance through the sheriff's department but was cut off in the fall when the department discovered language in a 1997 contract with the police union, which meant retirement coverage could only go to officers who had been in the department for 25 years. Previously, the clause had been interpreted as 25 years of service in any police organization. Covert served about 18 years with the county and has had two stints in Cooperstown totaling about 12 years. 

"It didn't just affect me," he said. "There are 11 other officers who lost coverage because of this."

Covert said Otsego County Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. and the police union have been working to correct the problem, and he is happy with their attempts to help him and the other officers affected by the change.

However, he is less complimentary of village officials, who he said prematurely retired him and offered him a medical evaluation and unpaid leave rather than picking up his insurance. He said he has felt like a pariah among some officials with whom he thought he had a good relationship.

"They denied me health insurance. They tried to deny me unemployment. I won my unemployment case, but then they terminated me," he said. "They haven't said they have terminated me. They called it a medical leave, but they terminated me."

Cooperstown Mayor Ellen Tillapaugh said she was limited by law on what she could say in an employment matter, but she insisted Covert has not been terminated, and if he had been medically ready to return in October as scheduled, he would have been put back on duty.

She said misinformation or misunderstandings about Covert's job status have spread through other media reports, specifically making a rebuttal she said corrected a WKTV report. She said Officer James Kelman is in charge during Covert's absence because Covert's status has not been resolved, and if he could return to work, the village would welcome him back. 

"No, he has never been fired," she said. "He is a civil servant. We couldn't just do that anyway. He isn't able to work right now." 

Tillapaugh said Covert had always declined insurance from the village, and when he tried to get on the village plan, he was on unpaid leave and collecting unemployment, and thus ineligible for the village plan. 

Covert said he was ready to go back to work in October, but the village requested a independent exam, which found issues with his return. But while that was being settled, he had more complications, which continued into this year, with a Jan. 31 heart attack. 

"It has been a tough road," he said. "It is very expensive. I used to get my insulin for free, now it is $417 a month. And that is just one thing. That is just one drug. The co-pays are horrible. Because of the law, I had to go on Medicare, but it pays for almost nothing. I am paying probably $1,000 a month in co-pays."

However, despite his struggles, with his health or bureaucracy, Covert said he is grateful for the support he has received from the community, and said the large number of donors is as rewarding as the financial amount they have donated. 

"It has been humbling," he said. "It has been very helpful." 

Go to https://tinyurl.com/MikeCovert for more information or to donate. 

TO DONATE 

• Visit tinyurl.com/MikeCovert