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Undersheriff to Jefferson County Legislators: Airport will no longer be a priority

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A security staffing issue at the Watertown International Airport that first appeared on the radar in early March has suddenly reached critical mass for Jefferson County.

During the public comment period of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators General Services Committee meeting, Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau told the committee that because of a personnel shortage, he no longer would be able to guarantee a deputy for security screening during afternoon flights at the airport.

“The airport will no longer be a priority. We will provide morning coverage. Afternoon coverage only if we have the personnel,” Mr. Trudeau told legislators.

“I’m not here giving you an ultimatum, I’m not giving you threats, I’m not here to bombard you. I’m a department head explaining to you what the situation is,” Mr. Trudeau said when he was called back to the podium at the end of the meeting.

“My officers are getting burned out, but they have really stepped up. You do have outstanding men and women working for you,” Mr. Trudeau said, noting that he has four vacancies in his department, placing a difficult strain on deputies who have to report to the airport three times a day in addition to their other duties.

Two of those vacancies are expected to be filled shortly with officers hired from other law enforcement agencies, Mr. Trudeau said.

He declined to name the agencies because he said the details of the contracts were still being worked out with the county’s Human Resources Department.

But Mr. Trudeau said that even with the two vacancies filled, he would be hard pressed to meet the demands of the airport detail.

“The issue is not on the expenditure side, it’s on the revenue side,” County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann said.

When the county took over the airport from the city of Watertown in 2006, the Transportation Security Administration provided a subsidy that allowed the county to hire four additional deputies to help with security.

Since then, the funds have steadily dwindled, leaving the county with no money budgeted to pay the deputies who would fill the remaining two vacancies.

According to the county’s contract with the TSA, a law enforcement officer has to be present for passenger screening.

“Until the sheriff’s deputy shows up, the plane doesn’t go,” said Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the General Services Committee.

Mr. Trudeau said he has not yet set up a meeting with airport management or the TSA. First, he must secure permission to do so from Sheriff John P. Burns, who is away at a conference. At least until then, patrols will continue to be assigned to the afternoon flights.

The issue about the shortage first came up at the beginning of March, when Sheriff Burns said that he no longer would be able to provide a security detail at the airport because the county had not granted his requests to fill vacancies left by deputies who had retired, been promoted or moved on to other law enforcement agencies.

The number of vacancies had gone from three to four with the retirement of a deputy earlier that week.

The issue seemed to recede into the background after approval to fill at least two of the vacancies was granted after a period of public wrangling over the issue.

Mr. Trudeau said he received approval to hire the two deputies from the other law enforcement agencies only about a month ago.

The timing of Mr. Trudeau’s assertion comes at an awkward time for Jefferson County.

Last week, the airport hosted a meeting of the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency board of directors, during which consultant David L. Mosher presented the highlights of an ambitious plan to bring 400 to 500 jobs to a proposed business park at the site within five to seven years.

Consistency of service is key to ensuring the success of the airport, according to Mr. Reed.

“This could be a significant problem,” Mr. Hagemann said of the deputy shortage.

Mr. Trudeau said that while the funding for deputies working the airport detail has decreased, the responsibilities of the job, which include assisting TSA employees with passenger screening and conducting perimeter checks, have not.

In the past, Mr. Trudeau said, he has sent relief to deputies working at an accident scene so they can report to the airport on time.

And when foul weather comes into play in the winter, deputies are required to work extended hours.

For his purposes, Mr. Trudeau said, he wants to see the Board of Legislators approve the final two positions that have been vacant since 2012.

Mr. Hagemann said Mr. Trudeau’s statements before the committee were a total surprise.

“I talked to Paul as recently as last Thursday and he never mentioned anything about this,” he said.

Mr. Reed said there would be a continuation of the discussion with the board.

Between its two interactions with Mr. Trudeau, which were contentious at times, the board received updates about two emergency management issues from Joseph D. Plummer, director of Fire and Emergency Management for the county.

Mr. Plummer discussed a study of the county’s public safety communications system being conducted over the next two weeks by Blue Wing Services Inc., a St. Paul, Minn., communications company, and a proposed update to the county’s 911 phone system.

Blue Wing Services already has held meetings with fire and EMS personnel in the town of Adams and the village of Chaumont and will be at 7 p.m. today at the Depauville Fire Department Banquet Hall, at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Evans Mills Fire Department and at 7 p.m. next Wednesday at the Champion Fire Department

The General Services meeting was recessed until 5:30 p.m. next Thursday, when the committee will hear some preliminary findings from the consultant.

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