One day after the Jan. 1 deadline that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone set to have two controversial homeless sex offender trailers shuttered in Riverside and Westhampton, Bellone has pitched a plan that he said will close the facilities permanently.
The facilities remained open as of Jan. 2.
In a release put out Wednesday, Bellone said that, in the wake of court rulings throughout New York State against local residency restriction laws, he has directed the Suffolk County Police Department to develop a comprehensive approach to better protect communities from sex offenders.
According to Bellone, under his direction, the SCPD will work with other agencies of county government, advocacy organizations and mental health experts to review existing county laws and procedures to determine how to strengthen the county's approach to dealing with sex offenders.
Bellone has asked the county police department to return a plan that can be submitted to the legislature by the end of January.
A new approach is necessary, Bellone said, because current laws intended to protect communities from sex offenders are being successfully challenged in jurisdictions across New York.
There are more than 1,000 registered sex offenders throughout Suffolk County, he said. But, Bellone added, county policy has been disproportionately focused on approximately 40 sex offenders -- or four percent of the total-- who are homeless. Suffolk County is obligated under New York State law to pay for the housing of the homeless, including homeless registered sex offenders, he said; the new policy will increase monitoring and dedicate resources to 100 percent of Suffolk County's more than 1,000 registered sex offenders, Bellone said.
"I am directing the Suffolk County Police Department to make sure we are staying one step ahead to protect our families," Bellone said. “We will develop the most stringent monitoring and enforcement program in the nation.”
Parents for Megan’s Law Executive Director Laura Ahearn agreed with Bellone that there needs to be a heightened effort to monitor registered sex offenders.
“I applaud County Executive Bellone for his recognition of the need for, and commitment to, developing a comprehensive and proactive plan concerning registered sex offenders in Suffolk County,” Ahearn said. "Implementing sound policies, supported by necessary resources to insure compliance, are essential to protecting our children and our families.”
Bellone said the new approach will end the County's current policy of congregating multiple homeless sex offenders in fixed trailers but did not elaborate on details on where the sex offenders will be housed.
For years, the Riverside and Southampton Town communities have railed against what they believe are unfair burdens placed on individual communities most visibly in the sex offender trailers located in Riverside and Westhampton.
Last year, Bellone vowed at a press conference to have the two trailers closed by Jan. 1. Last month, local elected officials urged him to keep that promise. Suffolk County Legislator Jay Scheiderman said last month that if the trailers were not closed by Jan. 1, he would organize a large community meeting in Riverhead and ask that Bellone come speak directly to community members about why.
"I'm disappointed," Schneiderman said Wednesday. "I was hoping the county executive would be able to make his own Jan. 1 deadline."
Schneiderman said Bellone has reiterated his commitment to closing the trailers, and said a plan involving law enforcement, which would hopefully lead to a higher level of security, could make sense because any new plan should be one that "helps the community sleep at night. Public safety is the main element of whatever plan they develop."
Schneiderman also asked why Bellone was utilizing law enforcement and not social services, moving forward, to develop the plan.
He said he asked Bellone if the county executive would still consider a plan for mini-shelters previously passed by the legislature -- or if he would be willing to go back to a voucher system that would allow the homeless sex offender to stay in hotels, until the new plan was in place. The mini-shelter plan would need to be modified, Schneiderman said, because it only allows for 36 homeless sex offenders and currently, over 40 reside in the trailers.
"He didn't give me any specifics," Schneiderman said, but said Bellone promised the specifics would be revealed at the first meeting of the county legislature in February.
Schneiderman said he also wants to gage the public's response, to see if residents are willing to wait for Bellone's new plan "or turn up the heat."
A public meeting will be planned to give residents a chance to speak out, Schneiderman said. "They have to be growing impatient. Hopefully, they're not losing hope," Schneiderman said. "I'm losing patience. If you make a promise and break it no one will believe you the next time you promise something."
But, Schneiderman added, as long as Bellone, whom he believes is sincere in his commitment to close the trailers, gets them shuttered in a reasonable amount of time, credibility won't be an issue moving forward.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said if the promise to close the trailers was not kept by Bellone, litigation could commence.
"What does the county police department have to do with housing sex offenders?" Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter asked. Walter suggested that Gregory Blass, Suffolk County Commissioner of the Department of Social Services, could more effectively address the housing issue. "I don't know that the press release says much of anything," Walter said.
Walter has said that should he be elected to the Suffolk County Legislature in the Jan. 15 election, he would ask the county attorney to research if Sheriff Vincent DeMarco has state authority to close the trailer, which is located in Riverside and sited in the parking lot of the Suffolk County Correctional Facility.
"While any time lag on this is disappointing to us, I do appreciate what I'm being told, which is that County Executive Bellone is coming up with a comphehensive revamp and introduction of a new program," Throne-Holst said Wednesday morning.
The supervisor added that Bellone has told her that the new program will not only address homeless sex offenders but other homeless in the area -- good news, Throne-Holst said, because the which now houses the county's homeless, "is out of compliance with town code and county law and poses a major burden for one particular neighborhood and one school district."
The supervisor said she is grateful Bellone is communicating with her about the homeless issue, rather than the "stonewall" she has been receiving from the Department of Social Services.
Throne-Holst added that she understands that dealing with the impacts of Hurricane Sandy have led to the county executive's having to put other issues, such as the homeless sex offender trailers, on the back burner, with a six to eight week delay. Bellone has promised to have the matter before the legislature at the first session in February.
"We'll await the outcome of this, and if it's not to our satisfaction, we'll deal with it," Throne-Holst said.
How do you feel about Bellone's new plan? How do you feel about two homeless sex offender trailers remaining open after the promised Jan. 1 deadline? Let us know in the comments section.