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Critics eye Oyster Bay public safety costs

An Oyster Bay Public Safety vehicle parked at

An Oyster Bay Public Safety vehicle parked at the Marina at the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park. (March 17, 2011) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Oyster Bay's public safety force -- the town-defined "eyes and ears" deterrent to crime -- comes at a hefty price.

The department has almost doubled in size and cost in the five years since it was created, now with a budget of $4.5 million and a stable of loyal Republicans among the hires.

While neither the security guards nor bay constables are armed (and the guards have no arrest powers) supporters say their patrols of town property and shorelines are a vital comfort to residents. Still, the quick growth in a slowed economy has caught critics' attention.

"This is stuff we shouldn't be spending money on," said Terence Kelly, an East Norwich process server who first questioned the need for the department during last year's budget debate. "This is basically an auxiliary police department. There's no need for them."

 

Analysis of budget

A Newsday analysis of Public Safety Department budget documents found:

Oyster Bay spends more per capita on guard and bay constable salaries than any of the other seven Long Island towns without their own police departments and that rely mainly on county police for law enforcement.

The payroll for guards and constables is larger than all but one of those seven towns, Hempstead, which has 21/2 times the population of Oyster Bay.

Four department heads are paid more than $100,000; five others more than $80,000. Only Hempstead, with eight, has more chief guards and bay constables paid six figures.

The $4.5-million budget accounts for 4.4 percent of the town's annual general fund.

Most of the 104 staffers are registered Republicans, in a town where Republicans hold all the townwide elected offices. About two dozen Public Safety staff members are frequent party donors or have relatives who are. And at least 10 employees, including three of the four who are paid more than $100,000, were elected recently to a Nassau GOP committee seat.

Giving jobs to political loyalists is common for both major parties on Long Island, and Town Supervisor John Venditto makes no apologies about it.

"I'm not going to hire an enemy, someone who disagrees with me and wants things done in a different way," he said. "You tend to hire the people you know best, who believe in your goals."

 

Experience over politics

For public safety hiring, he said that experience trumps politics, and that some employees probably became active in the GOP only later. Thirty-five department members are retired or off-duty police officers, and many bay constables have decades of experience.

Public safety officers patrol parks, train station lots and other town properties in marked white Jeeps. Bay constables, a fifth of the force, have wider enforcement powers, including that of making arrests, along waterways. and wrote $7,515 in citations last year, officials said.

"To those who say, 'Is the money well spent?' I would say, 'What price do you put on public safety and quality of life?' " Venditto said.

He called the department Oyster Bay's "eyes and ears," and necessary in a post-9/11 world. It was created to centralize protection of town property and shorelines, and grew, he added, only as parks expanded, new recreation facilities were built and some locations needed 24-hour protection against loitering and vandalism.

Nassau police said they could not provide crime statistics for Oyster Bay alone because it stretches across parts of four precincts. Countywide, violent crimes have decreased about 9 percent since 2006, while property crimes increased nominally, according to data reported to the FBI.

"When you just look at them and their presence, it certainly is one that can deter crime," Nassau Police Det. Lt. Kevin Smith said of the public safety officers.

Opponents, however, point to the size of the department at a time of increased concern about residents' tax burden. Oyster Bay was one of only three Long Island towns to raise 2011 property taxes, by 3.5 percent, or an average of $31 per home.

 

A slap in the face'

"That's a slap in the face to everyone out there trying to grapple with a budget," said County Leg. Minority Leader Diane Yatauro, a Democrat whose district includes Oyster Bay.

In 2006, the public safety department had a budget of $2.3 million. Five years ago, only the commissioner made more than $100,000. Since then, the budget increased 97 percent, while the town general fund rose 38 percent.

Department guards must be certified by New York State, which requires 24 hours of training within 90 days of hire. Bay constables, who are peace officers under state law, are held to more rigorous standards, including 80 hours of pre-hire courses. Some hold Coast Guard Master's licenses.

Unlike employees in most town departments, they aren't required to take a civil service test. Like others, they are eligible for benefits and a pension.

Officers enforce town parking codes and have been first to spot house fires and children locked in parked vehicles, said Public Safety Commissioner Justin McCaffrey, a retired New York City police sergeant. They monitor government buildings, help coordinate storm response and manage traffic at summer concerts.

"We're filling a niche," said McCaffrey, who divides his department into security, constable and emergency management divisions.

Dennis Jay Kenney, a John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor, doubts the benefits justify the cost.

"It sounds like a waste of money," said Kenney, a former Florida police officer. "If they believe they need something over and above what police are doing, they ought to think about creating their own police department, or absent that, contract with private security."

Before the Public Safety Department, Oyster Bay did hire private security guards to watch town buildings, but little else. Venditto said the town still spent almost $1 million a year on the service.

All Nassau's and western Suffolk's towns have similar forces, but responsibilities vary.

In North Hempstead, animal shelter operations are included in the public safety budget, while security guards are part of the parks department. In Hempstead, constables work for the conservation and waterways department.

Huntington has 18 full-time guards; Smithtown has eight. Brookhaven spends $393,000 a year on constables; Islip spends $226,700.

Newsday's analysis of town budgets showed Oyster Bay spends about $12 per resident on public safety salaries.

The other large Long Island towns averaged about $6.50 per resident, according to the review, which -- to compare with Oyster Bay's structure -- considered only base salaries for guards, bay constables and supervisors, even if they crossed departments.

It didn't consider clerical staff, laborers, animal shelter and other employees some towns classify as public safety.

But no matter the difference in Oyster Bay's spending -- and current economic conditions -- Venditto isn't scaling back the department.

"It's not something you only have in good times," he said. "It's something that you need to have in all times."

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