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Suffolk passes bill backing Crime Victims Center Inc.

Legislator Tom Cilmi, center, speaks during a meeting

Legislator Tom Cilmi, center, speaks during a meeting of the Suffolk County Legislature in Hauppauge on Wednesday, June 1, 2016. Listening are Legislator Robert Calarco, left, and Legislator Thomas Barraga, right. Credit: Ed Betz

The Suffolk legislature approved an emergency resolution Wednesday night to indemnify and defend the nonprofit Crime Victims Center Inc. in its work doing in-home verification of sex offenders’ residences.

Lawmakers approved the resolution on a 16-2 vote. During an hourlong debate, several Republicans sought unsuccessfully to table the measure at least partially because Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini had not taken a position on the issue.

Legis. Kate Browning left the meeting to speak about the resolution by phone with Sini, who she said told her he supported it.

County Executive Steve Bellone issued a certificate of necessity to permit an immediate vote after the center’s insurers had agreed only to extend its liability coverage until June 7 in the face of two lawsuits brought against the county and the nonprofit over its program to verify residences of sex offenders listed on a state registry.

“We’re not going to abandon the most successful program to monitor sex offenders in the country,” said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) during the debate.

The center, formerly known as Parents for Megan’s Law, had a $2.5 million contract with the Suffolk Police Department for the past three years to verify sex offenders’ addresses as well as monitor social media and conduct education programs under Suffolk’s Community Protection Act.

The contract expired April 30, but the county has budgeted $768,000 for a contract extension through year’s end. County Attorney Dennis Brown said a new agreement, which includes county legal coverage for the “narrow scope” of its verification duties, should be complete within a few days.

Several Republicans said because agreement details were not available, they feared indemnification could cost taxpayers millions in court verdicts for personnel not trained or supervised by the county.

“It’s a very bad idea to put taxpayers on the hook for people we don’t even know,” said GOP Legis. Rob Trotta, himself a former Suffolk police detective. He said police could take over the job.

In the past, Suffolk County officials have been reluctant to indemnify other nonprofit groups with contracts, such as the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, because of the potential exposure to damages in a lawsuit. However, Brown said, the county in the past has provided similar coverage in some cases, including to doctors who worked in county health centers, and those working at the Vanderbilt and county maritime museums.

Laura Ahearn, the center’s executive director, said insurance costs had climbed from $4,500 a year to $25,000 annually before the insurer threatened to stop covering the center’s work for county.

“We’ve done 9,000 in-person visits in the last three years,” said Ahearn, noting that the group has found addresses that turned out to be empty lots and abandoned houses. ”We’ve yielded tremendous results.”

Lawmakers also unanimously approved Legis. Rob Calarco’s bill, dubbed Ginger’s Law, that requires dog groomers to register with the county consumer affairs department, mandates that groomers have at least 150 hours of training or experience, and sets standards for safe operations.

Penalties for violations range from $500 to $1,000 and the county is empowered to revoke or suspend licenses after three violations in two years.

The legislature also passed a bill sponsored by Hahn that will require dry cleaners to post signs disclosing the chemicals they use.

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