A new plan to permanently shutter two contentious homeless sex offender trailers in Riverside and Westhampton could come before the Suffolk County Legislature by next week -- and the trailers could be closed forever in a matter of months.
So said Suffolk County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, in an interview after a public meeting held on Wednesday night organized to garner input on the trailers, which have sparked a public outcry for years.
Schneiderman said while County Executive Steve Bellone did not attend the meeting, he sent a representative. He added that Bellone planned to unveil a new plan to permanently close the two trailers on Thursday morning, at 9:30 in Hauppauge, when Laura Ahearn, Executive Director of Parents for Megan's Law, presents the proposal to the public safety committee of the legislature.
Schneiderman said he had hoped Bellone would have revealed the logistics of his plan before Wednesday night's public meeting.
"The timing wasn't perfect," Schneiderman said. "I don't have all the details of the plan, but I have the basic components."
Bellone spoke with Schneiderman Wednesday and explained the focus of the plan would be to ensure that sex offenders would not be clustered in any one neighborhood; instead, they would be spread across Suffolk County.
A mini-shelter program which had previously been passed by the legislature is not one Bellone feels is the best approach, Schneiderman said, since the shelters would still be placed in communities, with a clustering of six sex offenders in each facility.
Bellone's new proposed program has been developed by Suffolk County law enforcement and Parents for Megan's Law.
"He described it as the most intense supervision and monitoring of sex offenders in the country," Schneiderman said.
Should the plan get the green light in the legislature, Schneiderman said the Parents for Megan's Law would act as a contract agency to ensure that all 1000 sex offenders in Suffolk County were living where they should be and community safeguards were in place.
In addition, Schneiderman said an enhanced notification system, utilizing social media, would be implemented. And, he said, county law enforcement would know exactly where each sex offender was residing across Suffolk County; the sex offenders would be highly supervised, he said.
During their conversation, Schneiderman said Bellone reiterated his May pledge to close the two trailers. "He said the trailers will absolutely close within a matter of months. I told him I'm going to be driviing the tractor with that trailer hitched to the back of it," Schneiderman said.
The plan, Schneiderman said, is a good one; the next step is to urge legislators to vote in support and pass the legislation; 12 votes would be required.
The legislation could come up for a vote as soon as Tuesday, he said; should that happen, residents are urged to come to the Hauppauge meeting to let their voices be heard.
Schneiderman said he is "cautiously optimistic" that the plan could pass. First, he said, both Parents for Megan's Law and the Suffolk County Police Department are advocating the proposal, and also, the mini shelter program plan is a backup -- which might compel legislators who do not want the mini shelters in their districts to support the new legislation, he theorized.
Finally, Schneiderman said Bellone has made a public commitment to closing the trailers. "It makes a big difference," he said. "For years I had a county executive fighting against getting rid of the trailers. Now I have one fighting to get rid of the trailers."
Elected officials who attended Wednesday's event included Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, Southampton Town Supervisor Anna-Throne Holst, Riverhead Councilwoman Jodi Giglio and Councilman Jim Wooten, and Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi. In addition, representatives of various civic groups and concerned members of the public were present.
Walter said a voucher program with monitoring is something he advocated years ago; Nassau County uses the system, he said. He believes "political courage" is necessary to move forward and said he hopes the legislature can move to advance the plan. "This is something that has to get done -- and it has to get done now," he said.
Giglio became emotional when speaking after the meeting. "First and foremost, as a mother of a 10-year-old and twins that are nine, one of my greatest fears is that of my children being preyed upon. With all that has gone on and predators who have tried to lure our children into their cars, or to take a walk with them, I tell my children to scream as loud as you can and run."
It has become the responsibility of Suffolk County residents to provide a home to sex offenders at a cost of $3000 per month, per offender, and "they are not even being supervised properly," Giglio said.
Giglio agreed with new Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski, who was also in attendance, who said the issue is "moral, not political."
The Suffolk County Legislature, Giglio said, is a body made up to represent residents from across the county and "needs to realize how important this issue is, and the importance of equal distribution of these facilities to ensure our tax dollars are being spent efficiently and moving toward the greater good of all county residents."
Southampton Town Councilman Chris Nuzzi agreed. "Southampton Town should not be the repository for all of Suffolk's burdens," he said. "This issue has lingered long enough, going on seven years now. Locating all of Suffolk's homeless sex offenders here is not only inherently unfair, but irresponsible and financially impractical."
Nuzzi said he stood by Bellone in May, when he "promised and end to this, and trust that he will work with the county legislature to remove these trailers from our community and implement a fair and financially viable system of housing these individuals, in accordance with state and federal mandates. This is a broken system that needs to be fixed and it begins with this immediate action."
Andrea Spilka, community advocate from the Speonk, Remsenburg and Westhampton area, said she liked the idea that Bellone is planning to add in monitoring and oversight.
"I'm anxious to see the details of the plan. I'm hoping the plan will be something that we can all support," Spilka said, thanking Schneiderman and the town supervisors for their work to close the trailers.
Brad Bender, president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Civic Association, said, since he became involved with FRNCA in 2006, "Our organization has been a major player in this movement to share the responsibility of housing homeless sex offenders from the day the trailers arrived in our community. I will continue to lead our organization in the fight for fairness and shared responsibility until this wrong becomes a right and our residents can feel secure."
Vince Taldone, FRNCA vice-president, agreed. "It is grossly unfair and unreasonable for western Suffolk legislators to continue to spend huge amounts of county money to house the entire population of homeless sex offenders in one East End town - far from their home districts. The burden has been thrust on Southampton and also downtown Riverhead where the sex offender trailer is a short walk from our library, grade schools and children's playgrounds."
While the county is legally responsible for housing all homeless people, including those with sex crime records, Taldone said the responsibility rests with the entire county and must be shared equitably.
"Steve Levy dumped this problem on Southampton and downtown Riverhead," he said. "During his election campaign, now County Executive Steve Bellone committed himself to closing the both trailer sites in Southampton by Dec. 31, 2012. It is time for a county executive to keep his promise to the voters."
Hank Beck, chair of the CAC West, was optimistic after the meeting. "We have much hope in anticipation of County Executive Steve Bellone's new approach that will be announced Thursday morning. Based on what preliminary information released last night by legislator Jay Schneiderman, and the honest and sincere commitment that Mr. Bellone has made to solving this issue, we are finally genuinely hopeful that something will work. What we need now is for the members of the county legislature to step up and act responsibly and with good governance."
Schneiderman said he would provide details of the plan Thursday as soon as they became available.
Wednesday's public meeting was organized after Bellone missed a Jan. 1 deadline to close the trailers in Riverside and Westhampton.
Bellone, in the meantime, pitched his initial plan that he said will close the facilities permanently.