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Town may turn to part-time officers to help with code enforcement backlog

Riverhead Town is considering having its part-time police officers handle code enforcement duties in an effort to catch-up with a lengthy backlog of complaints.

During the Town Board’s work session Thursday morning, Supervisor Sean Walter suggested having a meeting with code enforcement officials, the police chief and the town’s 10 part-time police officers to see if there’s a way to whittle down nearly 300 open complaints waiting to be addressed.

“We can’t have 300 complaints — this is quality of life,” he told town investigator Richard Downs and deputy town attorney Dawn Thomas after they expressed concerns about the backlog. “They all can do your job if you train them.”

Ms. Thomas said many of the outstanding complaints deal with serious issues, including overcrowding, rental housing and building violations.

Others are minor, such as grass cutting or property maintenance issues, which are complaints Councilman Jim Wooten described as “neighbors going after neighbors.”

Mr. Downs and town ordinance inspector Nicole Buckner are the department’s only full-time code enforcement officers. Ms. Thomas said it takes each of them about 90 minutes on average to address one complaint and the town has been receiving about 10 to 15 new ones weekly.

“We never get close to catching up and the complaints get more serious,” she said.

• Related story: Complaints up in file-heavy code enforcement office

While Mr. Walter said he’s committed to include hiring an additional full-time code enforcement officer in the 2018-19 budget, he believes the most effective, short-term solution is to have part-time police officers help out now in code enforcement.

Mr. Walter added about half of the town’s $200,000 reserve fund has already been spent to immediately replace some gas pumps and purchase a new pumpout boat, which he said was partially paid for through a grant.

Councilman Tim Hubbard, who is a retired police officer, expressed support for the supervisor’s idea and said the officers would be paid as code enforcement while on the job addressing such duties.

“A part-time police officer isn’t a police officer 24 hours a day,” he said, comparing to full-time officers. “When he’s off duty, he reverts to civilian status.”

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio expressed concern that such an arrangement would take police officers away from much-needed law enforcement tasks.

“Our part-time officers can only work 17 and a half hours a week,” she said. “You’re going to pull them off downtown so that they can do code enforcement?”

Mr. Wooten and Councilman John Dunleavy — both of whom are also retired police officers — said they believe it wouldn’t take officers off Main Street.

“In the nick of time, or when he’s not working, he can work with code,” Mr. Dunleavy said.

Following the discussion, there was a general consensus among the board that the next step would be to find out if the part-timers would even be interested in code enforcement work.

Ms. Thomas said she would arrange the meeting and follow up with the Town Board, as well as provide details on the financial implications.

Police Chief David Hegermiller couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

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Photo: Councilman John Dunleavy, left, and Supervisor Sean Walter addressing code enforcement issues with town investigator Richard Downs at Thursday’s Town Board work session. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)