Legislature puts off vote; sex offenders staying put for now

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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