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St. Lawrence County legislators save road patrol

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CANTON — More than 60 members of the St. Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department, their families and supporters filled the state Supreme Courtroom Tuesday to hear legislators tell them jobs in the criminal division are safe from elimination.

“I know there’s not an interest in doing this. There won’t be a motion tonight,” Legislator Frederick S. Morrill, D-Dekalb Junction, said. “We did look at this seriously. We know what it costs to provide public safety, and we’re going to do it.”

Mr. Morrill said it was his duty as Finance Committee chairman to identify nearly $1.5 million that could be cut from the Sheriff’s Department to bring down a projected 20 percent tax levy increase.

“That means drastic, deep cuts,” Mr. Morrill said. “There is no interest in cutting the road patrol, but we have to discuss it.”

Cutting unmandated services from the criminal division, including the Drug Task Force and road patrol officers, could have meant the loss of 12 positions.

Legislators adopted nearly $230,000 in reductions Sheriff Kevin M. Wells determined his department could live with. The tentative budget had already included $53,400 in savings for an account clerk in the civil division whose position was not filled.

“It’s a position in a revenue-sharing office I need,” Sheriff Wells said. “It counts.”

With the reductions in the Sheriff’s Department, legislators have so far cut less than 3 percent off the tentative budget’s 20 percent tax levy increase, mainly by decreasing the Highway Department. Before they turned to the Sheriff’s Department, legislators agreed to shave off $116,840 in Highway for the cost of two positions that will be lost through attrition.

Legislator Alex A. MacKinnon told the gathering of deputies and their supporters to lobby state representatives for a home rule bill that would allow St. Lawrence County to raise its local sales tax by one percent. So far, the county’s elected representatives in the Senate have refused to offer the enabling legislation.

“Public pressure will change that,” he said.

Before they decide to support an increase in the sales tax, Legislator Kevin D. Acres, R-Madrid, told them to think about the majority of counties who already have the additional money but are also broke. That prompted Mr. Morrill to ask Mr. Acres if he had a motion to sweep in major budget reductions.

Cutting the Sheriff’s criminal division would have meant the loss of its investigators, who Sheriff Wells said are on call seven days a week to handle felony cases and give advice to the road patrol.

The Drug Task Force, which is headquartered at the Sheriff’s Department, would have lost three people.

The uniform division is the backbone of the department. It transports prisoners to courts and hospitals, serves more than 1,000 documents annually for courts, tracks and verifies the location of 361 sex offenders, reviews more than 200 pistol permits yearly and does the fingerprints for all pistol permits, handles mental health pickup orders and responds to more than 10,000 complaints, among other duties, Sheriff Wells said.

Among the cuts he identified were to delete the purchase of one car, cut out radar equipment, eliminate book and periodical purchases, reduce preventive maintenance, shave costs in the jail, and pay for what he could with money seized through drug transactions.

Sean P. O’Brien, president of the county Deputies Association, told legislators the elimination of the road patrol would mean deep pockets in the county without adequate police protection.

“Who is going to do this if we don’t? I, for one, do not see additional resources coming from the state police,” he said. “You will be inviting crime that will spiral out of control. We implore you to do everything you can before you eliminate even one position from the criminal division.”

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