County: Housing sex offenders outside jail ‘not a viable option’

05/13/2010 12:00 AM |

The trailer for homeless sex offenders on the Suffolk County jail property in Riverside.

It appears the hated trailer for homeless sex offenders parked outside the county jail in Riverside will soon be a thing of the past.

“The Riverhead jail site does not remain a viable option,” a county Department of Social Services spokesman, Roland Hampson, told the News-Review this week.

He cited a state judge’s decision that directed Suffolk County to provide showers and proper sewage disposal at such shelters.

The trailer in Riverside contains no running water and is basically a construction trailer lined with cots. Under the county’s current program, Level 2 and Level 3 convicted sex offenders who sleep there use portable toilets affixed to the trailer.

“The Riverside trailer has dual holding tanks that are pumped out by a private vendor every day coordinated by the agency that operates the program,” said Mark Smith, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Levy. “That’s not a viable long-term option,” he later reiterated.

The county would likely face a new lawsuit if it does not comply with the judge’s order, officials said.

The administrative law judge’s decision came in response to a request for what’s called a fair hearing, filed by shelter occupants complaining of inadequate conditions at the trailers. The decision prompted social services last week to put a larger, replacement trailer with some plumbing features on county land in Westhampton Beach — the other site that Suffolk County has used to house homeless sex offenders.

There, the county has access to a septic tank. At the jail property, the new trailer would have to have been hooked up to the Riverhead Sewer District system.

County officials haven’t even made any request for a hookup, and likely won’t, said Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

“Nobody has ever come to me about using it, but we’re not going to allow it,” Mr. Walter said, adding that the state Department of Environmental Conservation probably wouldn’t allow for a septic tank in Riverside, given the jail property’s proximity to the Peconic River.

Mr. Levy unveiled a plan last fall that would have established an adequate shelter in Babylon Town, while keeping sites open on the East End as well, but reversed course in the face of massive opposition there.

County officials instead announced a program similar to Nassau County’s, through which homeless sex offenders would be provided with daily vouchers to find their own food and lodging. Under state law, New York counties are obligated to find food and shelter for all homeless, even sex offenders.

A full implementation of the voucher plan, which would have seen the East End trailer program ended, was stalled by lawmakers in the Suffolk County Legislature.

On Tuesday, the Legislature voted 14-4 in favor of a resolution, sponsored by President Officer Bill Lindsay (D-Holbrook), that directs social services to abandon the voucher system and present a plan for private shelters to handle homeless sex offenders.

Mr. Levy had 15 days from Wednesday to sign the resolution, called an administrative policy directive. Social services personnel would then have 30 days to present a plan to the Legislature, which would then vote to approve or deny it.

According to the resolution, such shelters would have to provide oversight, comply with sex offender residency laws, house no more than six occupants and be limited to one per town or legislative district.

Still, there’s no guarantee such a system would be implemented.

“Typically, we comply with directives like this,” Mr. Smith said. “But say, theoretically, it goes through and social services presents a plan to the Legislature. If the Legislature doesn’t like the plan, then the resolution doesn’t really set. It’s still kind of in this state of limbo.”

Legislator Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches), whose district spans Riverhead and the rest of the North Fork, voted in favor of Mr. Lindsay’s resolution on Tuesday.

“This is punting; it’s not moving the ball forward,” he said. “But it does at least get a requirement for a plan that would have some elements of equity. I won’t say I’m going to support the plan, but I am in favor of requiring a plan to at least come forward.”

He also admitted that under the plan, a shelter probably would be located in Riverhead Town, though he said having a trailer near the Enterprise Park in Calverton could be better than in Riverside, which is in Southampton Town but a short walk from shops, schools, museums and Riverhead Free Library.

He said it would be up to legislators to sit with county officials to figure out where best to house a shelter in the towns or legislative districts.

Mr. Romaine and the county’s other East End lawmaker, Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk), whose South Fork district currently contains both sex offender trailers, and other civic leaders have helped lead a charge against the county’s three-year-old policy of taxiing all of its homeless sex offenders to the East End each night to sleep. The county then ferries them each to social services offices across the county each morning.

Not only is the trailer system not equitable, said Riverhead tax assessor Mason Haas, who spoke, along with almost two dozen other East Enders, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Legislature, it’s expensive.

“Taxis are costing the county now up to $2 million,” he said, adding that he, too, liked Mr. Lindsay’s resolution.

“This is a good bill. It will share the burden,” he said. “This is a very sensible solution to a societal problem and one that, if such a plan were to be enacted, it would be a model that other states adopt. And I think [social services commissioner] Greg Blass could do it very fairly.”

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