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Sag Harbor sees savings in sheriff's offer

Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (Oct. 1, 2009)

Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (Oct. 1, 2009) Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk sheriffs may be on the verge of losing their role patrolling the county's two major highways, but Sheriff Vincent DeMarco is eyeing a move to the East End for some of his deputies.

DeMarco, in response to a request from Sag Harbor officials, made a proposal last month to take over police services in the waterfront village.

The sheriff would supply two cars and deputies around the clock for $923,000 a year -- less than half the $2.3 million the village now pays for its local department consisting of a chief and 12 officers, according to Mayor Brian Gilbride.

Sag Harbor trustees have ordered village attorney Fred Thiele, also a state assemblyman, to draft an agreement with DeMarco.

"If the village is going to abolish their police department and they have to look somewhere else for police services . . . we're just another option," said DeMarco, a Conservative who is in his second term.

Gilbride said the sheriff's proposal is significantly better than another the village received from East Hampton Town. He said other localities struggling with spiking health insurance premiums and pension costs while having to hew to a 2 percent state property tax cap might benefit from such a plan. "I talk to other East End mayors regularly and everyone is watching," Gilbride said. He called the sheriff's department a "great fit" for the East End because it has resources including marine and canine units already at its disposal.

The sheriff's proposal comes as the village is in binding arbitration with its police union, which has been without a contract since mid-2010. The mayor said the discussions with the sheriff's department are not aimed at pressuring the union.

DeMarco, a former deputy sheriff's union leader who has considered running for Congress, said he would not have made a proposal if he felt the village was using his offer as a bargaining ploy. "I made it clear to the mayor I would not be used as a hammer," he said.

DeMarco said his proposal would lower costs for the village and bring in extra revenue to the county, though he declined to say how much. He said he can offer a lower cost because deputies make less than unionized police officers and work 15 more days a year. "A deputy sheriff on overtime makes less than a Sag Harbor officer on overtime," he said.

DeMarco's proposal has come to light as county lawmakers prepare to consider a new contract with Suffolk's largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association. The agreement, expected to come up Tuesday for a vote in the full county legislature, would return highway patrol duties on the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway to county police. Before former County Executive Steve Levy's controversial move in 2008 to install sheriff's deputies on the highways, the 270 sheriff's deputies largely were detailed to transport prisoners between jail and court and perform evictions. About 30 deputies are on highway patrol.

Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), chairwoman of the legislature's public safety committee, said lawmakers would want to take a close look at any sheriff's contract, especially in light of the county's ongoing fiscal woes. "It's all about the money and I think he would have to show it was a zero cost to Suffolk County taxpayers," she said.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said the administration was unaware of the sheriff's proposal and could not comment.

Gilbride estimates that a Sag Harbor Village home assessed at $800,000 generates about $2,100 in property taxes, and that one-third goes for police. "All of us in Sag Harbor think our guys do a great job," Gilbride said. But he noted that the state pension system just notified the village that its bill will be $40,000 higher than expected.

"It's just very hard to keep up," Gilbride said. "It's not our fault. It's not their [village police] fault. It's just that Sag Harbor taxpayers have to foot the bill."

"The trade-off is dollars on one side and quality of service and having local control on the other," Thiele said. "And smaller villages especially in this climate are looking at whether a police department is something they can still afford."

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