When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone missed a Jan. 1 deadline to shutter two controversial homeless sex offender trailers in Riverside and Westhampton, County Legislator Jay Schneiderman vowed to host a community meeting to let residents' voices be heard.
To that end, Schneiderman has announced an East End Community Meeting seeking public comment on the county's homeless sex offender trailer program. The meeting will be held on Jan. 30. at 7 p.m. at the Riverhead County Center, in the Maxine Postal Legislative Auditorium.
At the meeting, Schneiderman plans to discuss recent delays in closing the trailers located in Riverhead and Westhampton housing homeless sex offenders from throughout Suffolk County.
Bellone, meanwhile, has pitched a plan that he said will close the facilities permanently.
The two homeless sex offender trailers remain open, despite a Jan. 1 deadline promised in 2012.
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 after the missed deadline. "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."
The public meeting was 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."
The homeless sex offender trailer issue was a topic at a debate Monday night between Sean Walter and Al Krupski, candidates for Suffolk County Legislature. The pair are vying to fill former Legislator Ed Romaine's seat; Romaine was a stauch proponent of shuttering the trailers.