Suffolk County still hasn't found a way to permanently replace 21 social-service center security guards it will soon lay off after a private firm it had planned to use balked at extending its contract.

The guards protect the busy service centers where social workers help the homeless and other temporary-assistance recipients. In restoring more than 100 social service jobs from a layoff list he inherited, County Executive Steve Bellone cut the guards, effective June 30.

Bronx-based Dreamland Security, whose employees now monitor Suffolk's John J. Foley nursing home in Yaphank and a health center in Amityville, was expected to take on the social service centers. But the firm said it couldn't afford the extra responsibilities under the terms of its current contract, Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass said.

So Dreamland will staff the social service centers only through August, as Suffolk seeks bids on a new contract.

"There's a certain measure of nervousness about it," Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass said of the transition to a private firm. "Especially given who they are replacing."

Unionized county security guards have relentlessly lobbied lawmakers to save their jobs. They say being replaced by a private company may violate their contract, and argue their dedication and knowledge of the hectic social service centers won't be equaled.

"Our guards know the people and know their problems, like a neighborhood cop," said Legis. Tom Muratore (R-Ronkonkoma), who sponsored a bill to restore the jobs. "I don't see a need for this."

Louis Re, a senior county guard with nearly 20 years on the job, recalled a recent encounter at the Coram center with a suicidal man, whom he calmed by remembering baseball cards the man kept in his knapsack. With that knowledge, Re said he distracted the man and got him to accept help.

"How can you put a price of savings on helping somebody that can't help themselves?" said Re, 47, of Middle Island. "I deal with people in crisis situations, and help them cope."

Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider acknowledged the decision to privatize guards was difficult. But he said Bellone saved 126 "mission-critical" social services job -- something Blass expressed gratitude for -- and that Dreamland staff is qualified enough to also contract with the New York State Department of Corrections.

In 2013, privatizing all 30 county security guards will save $600,000, assuming a similar contract, Schneider said. He expressed confidence that the state and federal aid that pays 63 percent of guards' salaries can be used for private security costs.

All decisions, he said, return to the $530-million deficit projection that already assumed the layoffs Bellone inherited.

"We're doing the tough things to get this deficit under control," Schneider said, "and the bottom line is that security is still a service we will be able to provide to our residents."

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