Town worker accused of sex abuse still on job
A longtime Shelter Island highway employee accused last month of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl remains on the job, a decision angering the girl's mother and other residents.
Jeffrey Starzee, 47, continues to work full time in the department and draw his $61,000-a-year salary following his Feb. 22 arrest stemming from accusations he fondled the Shelter Island girl over her clothing in two separate incidents on Dec. 3, according to officials and records filed in Shelter Island Town Court.
Starzee, an 18-year employee of the highway department, has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanors -- third-degree sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child.
Starzee remains free on $1,250 bail. He would be required under state law to register as a sex offender if convicted of the sexual abuse charge.
Approached outside his home, Starzee said his lawyer advised him not to speak with a reporter.
"I wish I could talk to you," he said. "The truth will come out."
The girl's mother, Deborah Ross of Shelter Island, said she's speaking about the situation because she feels going public could lead to discipline for Starzee. "I'm outraged that he's still working on the town's dime, getting paid with our taxpayer money after what happened to my daughter," she said. "The fact that he's still on the job is ridiculous."
"I'm very upset that he remains around other children and can drive around in a town truck even though he may end up a convicted sex offender," Ross said.
She said her daughter is "destroyed" and hopes to transfer schools. "What she's had to go through is unbelievable," Ross said.
Shelter Island officials defended their decision to keep Starzee on the job.
"He's not facing any disciplinary action at this point," said Town Supervisor James Dougherty. "We feel these are allegations. Under our system of justice, he's innocent until proven guilty."
Highway Department Superintendent Jay Card said: "We're watching the case to see how it's going to unfold."
Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a Manhattan-based good-government watchdog group, said the town's decision not to suspend Starzee is improper. "That's [a suspension's] ordinarily what you would expect," Dadey said. "It's the proper action."
Dadey criticized the town's response. "He should have been placed on administrative leave without pay until such time as the court decides the allegation," Dadey said.
Residents voiced similar concerns.
"Especially because this involves sexual abuse of a teenager, a town worker shouldn't be driving around getting paid," said Dorothy Healy, a part-time resident of Shelter Island. "He shouldn't be conducting business as usual, like the arrest never happened."
A sampling of actions taken against public employees in other communities on Long Island show workers often are removed from duty after criminal charges.
In the Town of Brookhaven, for example, highway worker Thomas Forkin, 30, was suspended without pay in December after Suffolk County prosecutors charged him that month with conspiring to sell cocaine and oxycodone to co-workers. Forkin pleaded not guilty.
Officials in several other Long Island areas who didn't want their names used said any public employee charged with child-sex abuse in their communities would probably be suspended without pay.
Starzee has come under scrutiny before. An audit of the highway department in 2011 found he received nearly $9,000 in unapproved compensation from the town while filling in as the department's deputy superintendent. He continues to work full time as a truck driver and equipment operator, officials said.
Ross said her daughter has refused to attend Shelter Island High School -- where she is a standout athlete in several sports -- because Starzee's wife is an employee there. Records show Helene Starzee has been employed by the school since 2003. Two of the Starzees' children also attend the school.
School officials did not return calls seeking comment. Starzee is next due in court Monday.
"I think the trial here wouldn't be fair [because everyone on the island knows Starzee]," Ross said. "They should move it. My daughter deserves fairness."