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Airport security debate hinges on difference of opinion

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The debate over a potential security shortfall at the Watertown International Airport hinges on a difference of opinion over two vacant positions in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department.

Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau, who told legislators Tuesday that he no longer would be able to guarantee a deputy for afternoon flights because of a personnel shortage, wants to see those two positions filled. After all, he said during a meeting of the Board of Legislators General Services Committee, they were included in the county’s 2013 budget.

But seeing an opportunity to save money by reducing the size of the department, county legislators and administrators want to see a hard-nosed accounting of how deputies are spending their time before they decide what to do about the positions.

According to County Manager Robert F. Hagemann III, the issue has been outstanding since at least March 2012, when officials asked Sheriff John P. Burns for an accounting of how the department’s law enforcement division is being deployed.

Mr. Hagemann said legislators and administrators wanted to get a better understanding of how the department is allocating its resources after several rounds of a federally funded Department of Homeland Security program raised questions about how manpower was being used.

That request did not meet with a favorable response.

“The sheriff absolutely refused to bring forth any information,” Mr. Hagemann said.

A year later, Mr. Trudeau, the new undersheriff, gave a PowerPoint presentation to county officials about how personnel were being used.

Mr. Trudeau said that after giving the presentation, he heard nothing for months, despite several attempts to engage officials in a conversation about his concerns.

“They just said they would talk over the information and make a decision,” he said.

Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the Board of Legislators General Services Committee, which oversees the budget of the Sheriff’s Department, said that officials asked for more information following the presentation, including a detailed description of how deputies were spending their hours.

But according to Mr. Trudeau, the county has not asked for any more details.

“They got all that information in the March meeting. Since then, they haven’t asked for any additional information,” Mr. Trudeau said. “No other options have been addressed.”

Mr. Hagemann said that while board members appreciated Mr. Trudeau’s presentation, “it didn’t get to the heart of ‘How are you using your personnel?’”

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Mr. Trudeau told legislators that if he did not get more deputies, the airport no longer would be a priority for the department.

Responding to those comments Wednesday, Mr. Hagemann said, “It is the duty of the board to establish the priorities of the county. For the Sheriff’s Department to suggest on their own that this is not a priority, it’s not their job. It’s the job of the Board of Legislators.”

In 2006, when the county took over the airport from the city of Watertown, it signed an agreement with the Transportation Security Administration to provide security for passenger screening at the airport as well as a host of other duties.

Along with that agreement came a substantial amount of money to pay local law enforcement to take on that role.

The county hired an additional four deputies with an eye toward creating a department annex at the airport.

Those plans never came to fruition because the TSA ramped down the amount of funding for the program and reduced the number of required duties, according to Mr. Hagemann.

Mr. Trudeau said the duties of his deputies at the airport have remained the same.

By early March, the department had four vacancies to fill after deputies had retired, been promoted or moved on to other law enforcement agencies.

After Mr. Burns said he no longer could support the security detail at the airport, the county authorized him to hire two deputies, officers who will be moving to the department from other law enforcement agencies, according to Mr. Trudeau.

But that still leaves the department down two deputies from full strength, plus another deputy on light duty, Mr. Trudeau said.

The shortage is wearing down his staff, who “have really stepped up” to meet the demands placed on them by all their duties, which increase during the summer, he said.

Since 2006, the county has invested a significant amount of time and resources in the airport. Plans are being drafted to create a business park at the site and a search is underway for a full-time airport manager. Last year, the airport had 18,875 departures and 20,278 arrivals.

To protect its investment, the county apparently is willing to look outside the sheriff’s department to fulfill the security staffing requirement.

“There’s options out there and they will be reviewed,” said Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, chairman of the board’s Finance and Rules Committee.

It is a strategy that Mr. Hagemann said the county has been considering.

“We are exploring that but it has not been finalized. It’s an ongoing effort,” he said, adding that until a full-time airport manager is hired, contracting with a private security firm or another law enforcement agency is a theoretical exercise.

Mr. Reed said he wondered whether the department had looked at other missions apart from the airport to reduce the pressure on deputies.

Mr. Trudeau said that he has looked at other areas and that he never said the airport would have to go, just that he couldn’t guarantee deputies’ presence there at all times.

He said that he really just wants the board to come to a decision about whether his department will be able to hire two more deputies and that his appearance before the committee was not an attempt to force anybody’s hand but to simply bring a concern to the board.

“I had a concern, the board listened, and that’s basically it,” he said.

Mr. Trudeau said he would not be scheduling a meeting with airport or TSA officials until he speaks with Mr. Burns, who is at the New York State Sheriffs’ Association annual summer training conference in Alexandria Bay.

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