NEW PORT RICHEY — Shirley Findel lives in a two-bedroom house in Gulf Harbors that her husband, Harry, inherited from his father. With 1 1/2 baths and pink shutters, it was built in 1972.
She drives a 2004 Mercury.
"I only drive it to Publix and church," said Mrs. Findel, whose accent is a mix of Southern belle and New York beat cop.
She and Harry, a hazel-eyed Marine she married in 1954 after they met at a dance in her native North Carolina, lived frugally as he worked 23 years as an engineer for the Long Island Railroad and she raised their two kids. He opted for a pension plan that had a lower payout but would allow his bride to be supported after his death.
When her husband died, the 79-year-old widow mailed a copy of his death certificate to the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The checks that arrived were for a different amount from what they had previously received. When she called about the discrepancy, the agency followed up with a letter.
After reviewing the records, the letter said, "it came to our attention that Mr. Findel's monthly pension was processed incorrectly."
The result? A $26,707 overpayment that the agency says Mrs. Findel must repay.
If she can't pay the amount in full, the letter said, she can choose a payment plan. If she doesn't pay up or formally dispute the findings in 30 days, it said, she could lose the entire pension.
"I got bad news and more bad news," Mrs. Findel said.
The letter explained that when Harry Findel turned 65 in 1995 and the pension took effect, the couple was overpaid $124.80 for 214 months. That's nearly 18 years.
Mrs. Findel said she was offered a plan to have $240 a month deducted from her check for the next nine years.
"I'm 79," she said. "Am I going to live to be 90? I don't know. Will they then try to take it from my family?"
Mrs. Findel, whose only other source of income is her husband's Social Security benefits, said she might have to sell her house if she loses the pension.
Her blood pressure has skyrocketed since the letter came last month.
"The stress has been horrible," she said.
Her daughter, Linda Box, who lives in Brentwood, N.Y., was outraged.
"When she got the letter she was hysterical," said Box, who contacted reporter after reporter in hopes someone would pick up the story.
"I thought it should be out there," Box said.
Newsday jumped on the tip. It ran a front page article Wednesday detailing Mrs. Findel's plight. It went viral.
Since then, the phones haven't stopped ringing.
"Someone called from Canada," Box said. She said she also called elected officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. An attorney told her the MTA's actions were likely legal, she said, but "is it the morally right thing do?"
No, Box said.
"It was their mistake," Box said. "My parents weren't rich. These are middle-class people."
Salvatore Arena, a spokesman for MTA, said in a statement that the pension has a "fiduciary duty to the participants and beneficiaries of the trust to recover funds that are improperly paid to a beneficiary, even if it is the result of an inadvertent error."
The statement went on to say that the agency would work with Mrs. Findel to reach "a fair and equitable solution."
Mrs. Findel said the agency should own up to its error.
"I was taught and I taught my children to take responsibility for their mistakes," she said. "I should not have to pay for (the MTA's) mistake."