Rick Brand is a longtime Newsday reporter who writes about politics and government on Long Island.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is planning a New Year's surprise: He's not telling anyone -- not even his own Department of Social Services -- about how he is going to move homeless sex offenders from the East End come January.
Bellone held a news conference with local officials in May promising by year's end to move the 25 to 30 homeless sex offenders who are housed nightly in trailers in Westhampton and next to the county jail near downtown Riverhead.
Bellone aides last week gave no hint about how the county executive plans to proceed. Spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said Bellone stands by his pledge to move the offenders by the end of the year, and that he will share "additional details" about the county's plans "at that time" to house homeless sex offenders.
The trailers were first used under former County Executive Steve Levy. Originally, they were supposed to be moved to different sites around the county, but they never moved from their current locations.
Under pressure from county lawmakers, Levy later proposed moving the homeless sex offenders to an industrial park in Babylon -- where Bellone was town supervisor. A hearing brought out more than 1,000 angry residents, most of them from Nassau because the site was near the county border. Levy then called for a voucher system to give offenders $90 nightly to find their own housing, but lawmakers refused the petty cash to fund it.
Legislative Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D-Holbrook) won approval for what he saw as a fairer system -- a network of a half-dozen mini-shelters in industrial parks. None would have housed more than six homeless offenders, and all occupants would have round-the-clock supervision. No Suffolk town or legislative district would have more than one site.
Even though that initiative is now official county policy, Bellone seems to be balking.
Social Services officials, who would oversee the mini-shelters, say they advised Bellone's budget staff in August that $1 million was needed in the 2013 budget to implement the mini-shelters. Bellone put no funding for the shelters in his proposed budget.
"I don't know what they are doing," Lindsay said. "I still believe in the mini-shelters because it spreads the burden fairly across the county. It takes a little work but it's doable."
Alexander Roberts, executive director of Community Housing Innovations, a Patchogue-based nonprofit shelter operator recruited by Suffolk to run the mini-shelters, said he has written the county attorney repeatedly since April asking for legal clarification about how the new mini-shelters should operate. He said he has gotten no response.
Roberts said he wants to make sure the county would indemnify the nonprofit group and represent the organization in lawsuits should anyone oppose mini-shelter sites. "I get the feeling the county wants to go in a different direction," he said, but added he will support whatever the county wants to do. The Suffolk attorney's office did not return several calls for comment.
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Bellone is "actively considering all options," including mini-shelters, but declined to be more specific. "We will engage the public when the time is ripe," he said.
"I don't know what his [Bellone's] plan is, but I will judge it when I see it," said Legis. Jay H. Schneiderman (I-Montauk). "All I know is the last plan was terribly unfair to nearby communities. Any plan that shares the burden will be an improvement."