03/09/11 7:30pm
03/09/2011 7:30 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The inside of the trailer for homeless sex offenders in place outside the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside.

East End lawmakers have scored what could be a big victory in the effort to remove trailers that house homeless sex offenders in Riverside and Westhampton.

The county Legislature voted 14-3 Tuesday to override a Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy veto of a bill that lets the Department of Social Services consider the proposal of a private shelter provider to oversee offenders in industrial areas throughout the county.

And it doesn’t appear is if Mr. Levy is gearing up to block implementation of the new program.

Under the plan, proposed by Brentwood-based Havens House/Bridges Inc., six offenders would be housed at different sites throughout the county and there would be no more than one shelter in each legislative district or town. Offenders would also receive supervision and counseling.

The Haven House application was initially rejected due to permitting questions and because it was filed after a due date.

Another vendor’s pitch failed to ultimately win legislative approval because it involved keeping potential locations secret until they were up and running.

“This could end up being a system that other states will want to mirror as they all are dealing with the same issue,” Mason Haas, a Riverhead Town tax assessor and outspoken trailer program critic, said of a potential new program.

He said the difference between the two vendors is that the Havens plan, to his knowledge, does not require the locations to remain secret.

“I am pleased that my colleagues saw the injustice that was being done to the East End,” said legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) whose district does not encompass the trailers. “[But] I am concerned the county executive may block any efforts to implement them.”

Dan Aug, a spokesman for Mr. Levy, said although the county executive favors putting offenders up in motels using daily vouchers, it is now up to Department Social Services director Greg Blass to determine whether or not to move forward with the Haven House plan.

But, Mr. Aug added, the new system could lead to lawsuits and public opposition, which could stall the shutting of the trailers.

Still, Mr. Levy does appear to be backing down from his push for a voucher program.

“The Legislature has spoken,” Mr. Aug said. “We will await the vendor’s plan for what to construct and where to locate. It’s out of our hands at this point.”

Mr. Schneiderman told the News-Review earlier this month that if no alternative proposals is implemented and social services keeps putting the offenders up each night in the trailers, he would consider suing the county.

Legislators Steve Stern (D-Huntington), Lou D’Amaro (D-Huntington Station) and Tom Barraga (R-West Islip) voted against the override Tuesday.

The state mandates that all counties offer housing to homeless people, including sex offenders.

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02/08/11 12:55pm
02/08/2011 12:55 PM

BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | The inside of the trailer for homeless sex offenders in place outside the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside.

County Legislator Jay Schneiderman says he and his East End colleague Legislator Ed Romaine may take Suffolk County to court if it fails to start a new program for housing homeless sex offenders and continues putting them up each night in trailers in Riverside and Westhampton.

The Legislature last Tuesday in Hauppauge could have paved the way to ending the trailer program, but it fell three votes short of overriding County Executive Steve Levy veto of the bill that would have allowed the county to hire a company called Community Housing Innovations, or CHI. The CHI group wanted to run small shelters at several locations — which would have been undisclosed until they were up and operating — throughout the county.

But in another bill passed on Tuesday, the Legislature agreed to consider a second proposal from another shelter operation. Mr. Schneiderman said in an interview it’s the last step in his four-year fight to get rid of the trailers before he considers going to court with Mr. Romaine.

If Mr. Levy vetoes the bill and the Legislature again fails to override, he said all options, including legal action, would be on the table.

“We’ll know around the second week of March,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “If the county executive vetoes” the new bill, “he’ll probably do it by the end of this month.”

If the veto is overridden, Mr. Levy would have no choice but to let the Department of Social Services sign a contract with one of the two shelter operators because a law passed last year directed the county to implement a new shelter program by last October, Mr. Schneiderman said.

The county executive and the legislators all claim they want to end the current policy of shipping homeless sex offenders every night to Riverhead and Westhampton but both have supported different approaches. Mr. Levy has supported a voucher system through which homeless offenders would receive a voucher for up to $90 per day to find their own housing in motels. The Legislature voted against a voucher system last year.

Dan Aug, a spokesman for Mr. Levy, said the county executive had not yet decided whether he would veto the new bill. Mr. Aug said Mr. Levy didn’t like the CHI plan because it involved “secret locations.”

“We’re going to take a close look at the Haven House/Bridges proposal,” he said. “At the same time our same concerns could apply as had been the case with CHI, in that lawsuits and opposition could abound if this type of proposal goes into effect and the trailers would be open in perpetuity.

“The ironic thing is Mr. Romaine and Mr. Schneiderman and their colleagues snatched defeat from the jaws of victory when they killed the voucher plan,” he continued, “because that would have brought the closure of the trailers.”

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12/15/10 12:46pm
12/15/2010 12:46 PM

Things are happening in downtown Riverhead. The Hyatt Place hotel at Atlantis Marine World is beginning to take shape; Dark Horse restaurant at the prominent corner of Peconic Avenue and East Main Street is lit up and alive at night; and a renovated Grangebel Park, complete with a new amphitheater and other amenities, is set to open in time for Christmas.

Here’s what’s not happening. The construction trailer that sleeps almost two dozen homeless sex offenders is still parked across Route 24 from Grangebel Park. For about 3 1/2 years, it has sat there, outside the Riverside jail. Not only does the trailer draw sex offenders to the area, it attracts negative attention — just what a beleaguered downtown Riverhead doesn’t need in otherwise promising times.

But this is the season of perpetual hope, so here are a few reasons to be hopeful the Riverhead area will get some relief in 2011:

• The trailers are illegal. A state administrative law judge, after hearing complaints from sex offenders about a lack of showers and toilets, ruled that the trailers must have such facilities. Southampton Town officials acquired a restraining order blocking the county from placing a larger trailer with running water next to an existing trailer for sex offenders in Westhampton. As for the trailers near the jail, they are in Southampton Town, too, but they’re also in the Riverhead sewer and water districts, so the Riverhead Town Board can reject any requests to hook up a trailer to provide water and toilets. The county hasn’t made such a request yet, but it has to do something to legalize the situation or it will be sued. Maybe soon it will finally face facts and remove the trailers.

• Some western Suffolk lawmakers appear ready to vote in favor of a plan to place homeless sex offenders across the county in several smaller shelters in industrial areas. That’s a good sign. Western legislators had seemed content to spend gobs of money forever to taxi sex offenders from as far west as Amityville to the East End trailers each night — no matter how impractical, inhumane and outright unfair that might be. Two Huntington lawmakers even proposed a bill to make the trailers in Riverside and Westhampton permanent.

Legislator Ed Romaine, whose district includes Riverhead, has sponsored a bill to contract with a vendor to operate shelters, no more than one per town or legislative district, that would have running water and house no more than six offenders. Mr. Romaine believes he has 10 votes, good for a majority of the Legislature’s 18 members.

• If for some reason the year ends and the county’s policy for housing homeless sex offenders remains in limbo, residents can trust their local civic advocates and elected leaders to keep pushing until the trailers are gone. It also helps that powerful lobbyist and Parents for Megan’s Law founder Laura Ahearn, who had previously been in favor of the trailers, is now calling for the smaller shelter system.

Riverhead area residents have said repeatedly, “Share the burden” and “We’ll take our own.” They recognize that sexual predators are a societal problem that will always exist here and everywhere, but they also recognize it’s inherently wrong to ship all the county’s homeless sex predators to one town. For those who disagree, just look to the words of then-deputy commissioner of social services Greg Blass, who in 2007, when the trailer system was launched, told The New York Times that the trailers would be rotated throughout the county, because sex offenders “have tended to locate permanently in places where they were placed in temporary shelters. This [rotating the trailer locations] lets us avoid making any one area a haven for sex offenders.”

12/08/10 10:25am
12/08/2010 10:25 AM

Homeless sex offenders will continue sleeping in construction trailers in Riverside and Westhampton a little while longer. The county Legislature on Tuesday postponed voting on a bill that would have directed the county Department of Social Services to enter into an agreement with a private company to house the ex-cons in small shelters scattered throughout the county.

Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), who sponsored the bill, said it appeared to have the support of 10 of the Legislature’s 18 members, enough to gain a majority. But because only one company, Community Housing Innovations of White Plains, has submitted a proposal to house the sex offenders, the Legislature’s attorneys said 12 votes would be needed for the measure to pass, he added. That, Mr. Romaine explained, is why legislators who favored the move instead decided Tuesday to postpone the vote until the next Legislature meeting in two weeks.

“We were not going to run the risk,” he said. “I don’t want to see this defeated. I may also want to amend it to include a definite closure date for the trailers.”

In addition, Mr. Romaine said, there also is a second vendor who didn’t submit its proposal on time. If the Legislature can grant a waiver allowing that proposal to be considered as well, no vote will be required and the DSS commissioner can award a contract without legislative approval, according to Mr. Romaine, who said lawmakers’ approval was needed only because there was just one proposal.

Under the current program, all homeless sex offenders in Suffolk County who receive assistance from DSS are housed in the Riverside or Westhampton trailers, which do not have running water, cooking facilities or showers. The state has notified the county that the trailers are not up to code, and several sex offenders have filed a lawsuit protesting the conditions there.

“The people of the Riverside and Westhampton communities demand that the ever-looming defiant act of holding the people of these communities hostage through [the Legislature’s] inaction cease, and that trailers be closed immediately,” Brad Bender, president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, told lawmakers at the Tuesday meeting at the Riverhead County Center. “It is time to put vigilance before votes and the people before politics.”

The county also pays about $1 million per year on taxis to transport sex offenders from the trailers during the day, when most of them go to destinations in western Suffolk, according to Mr. Romaine. He said that when the trailers were first introduced three years ago, County Executive Steve Levy’s office said they would be moved from town to town; instead, they have remained in just two communities.

The new proposal calls for the sex offenders to be housed in small shelters scattered throughout the county, with no more than six offenders living at each site. The shelters would not be established in residential areas, Mr. Romaine said, and each would each have a community siting board and provide cooking facilities, bathrooms, showers, security and counseling to residents.

The county bill requesting proposals for such facilities had received only one that qualified, officials said, and that came from CHI. Initially, Mr. Romaine and South Fork Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) felt that DSS commissioner Greg Blass could award the contract to CHI without the Legislature’s approval, but Mr. Blass argued that because features of CHI’s proposal went beyond what the Legislature had called for, a vote was necessary.

Under the voucher system, sex offenders each receive up to $90 per day to find their own housing. Mr. Romaine said the average offender spends $68 per day.

Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Meghan’s Law, a group that lobbied for sex offender notification laws, urged legislators Tuesday morning, before the resolution was tabled, to support Mr. Romaine’s proposal.

“No one will want a shelter in their Zip code,” she said. “But if the shelter has 24-hour-a-day supervision, and is located in an industrial, non-residential area outside the residency restriction zones and with no more than six offenders, our entire county community will be safer than it is now.”

Ms. Ahearn said the trailers are not an option because they can’t be expanded. She also opposed the voucher system.

“Taxpayers don’t want to pay $90 a night, $2,700 a month or over $32,000 a year to house sex offenders at hotels or motels of their choosing,” she said.

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