Rain doesn’t dampen resolve at rally

04/22/2010 12:00 AM |

Rally organizer Mason Haas (fourth from right) addresses protesters outside the Suffolk County jail in Riverside Saturday morning.

About two dozen people, toting signs that read “Share the burden” and “Protect our children,” rallied near the Suffolk County Jail in Riverside Saturday to protest the county’s policy of housing homeless sex offenders on the East End.

Despite the rain, residents and local officials marched along Route 24 from the Riverhead County Center to the jail, as a few passing drivers honked in support.

“We hope to send a message,” County Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) said before the march, intended to put more pressure on lawmakers to stop the unpopular housing program.

The rally was hosted by Mr. Romaine and Mason Haas, a Riverhead tax assessor and outspoken critic of the program.

Since 2007, the county has been housing almost all homeless sex offenders at a trailer at the jail and on county-owned land in Westhampton. Local officials and residents say it costs the county millions of dollars in taxi fees to shuttle the offenders to and from their shelters and that the program forces the East End to carry the burden of housing all the county’s offenders. Mr. Romaine has argued that New York State needs to revisit its policy of releasing convicted sex offenders who do not have a permanent address.

Jamesport resident Patricia Kelly said she attended the rally because she and her children feel unsafe with sex offenders possibly wandering downtown Riverhead. Their presence also has complicated Riverhead revitalization efforts, she argued.

“It’s not doing us any good,” Ms. Kelly said.

Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), who represents the South Fork and in whose district both trailers are located, reiterated his belief that the burden should not be shouldered by the East End alone.

“Sex offenders are being taxied to your home,” Mr. Schneiderman said at the rally, adding that the cost of transporting the offenders was estimated to reach $2 million this year. “It’s the most wrongheaded policy I could imagine.”

During the rally, Mr. Haas agreed, at the request of Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, to spearhead an effort to build a playground at the George Schmelzer Riverfront Park on West Main Street, about a quarter-mile from the jail.

Mr. Walter said building a playground near the site would prevent the county from placing any more sex offenders in the trailer near the jail. Riverhead and Southampton towns sued the county last year, claiming it was violating the law by placing the homeless sex offenders too close to the town-owned park and Riverhead Free Library.

Earlier this year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said the county would do away with the trailers in favor of a system that would provide offenders with daily $90 vouchers to be used for food and lodging in motels and boarding houses.

The Legislature has since stalled a measure to increase petty cash funding for the Department of Social Services, which would permit full implementation of that program fully implemented and removal of the trailers.

West end legislators Steve Stern and Lou D’Amara, both Democrats from Huntington Town, have introduced a bill in the Legislature that would make the trailers, which do not have showers or cooking facilities, permanent.

Presiding Officer Bill Lindsay (D-Holbrook) recently called on the county to scrap both plans in favor of spreading the offender population across the county, with no more than three Level 2 and 3 sex offenders, deemed the most likely to re-offend, living in the same place.

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