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County legislators up in arms over Sheriff’s armored vehicle

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Some Jefferson County legislators are questioning the necessity of a heavily armored truck recently acquired by the Sheriff’s Department.

A 2008 Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP, vehicle was donated to the department through a federal program that transfers excess Department of Defense property to law enforcement agencies at no cost.

The vehicle, which weighs 19 tons empty and up to 21.7 tons fully loaded with fuel, equipment and personnel, was designed and built to protect American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq from blasts from improvised explosive devices. It has bulletproof glass and a specialized V-shaped hull to deflect explosions. It can hold a two-person crew and up to six passengers and a gunner.

According to department personnel, it will be used by the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team to handle situations in which people have taken hostages or barricaded themselves in buildings.

The acquisition of the vehicle through the Law Enforcement Support Office of the Defense Logistics Agency was given preliminary approval by the board with an endorsement from the General Services Committee on Sept. 10.

Now painted black, the vehicle sits in the back lot of the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, silent and imposing.

But some legislators, led by Finance and Rules Committee Chairman Scott A. Gray, R-Watertown, have realized that the vehicle is much larger and different in character from what they were expecting.

“I assumed that it was just another Humvee,” Mr. Gray said. “We simply don’t need something that excessive. We should have started asking questions much earlier.”

The county acquired two Humvees through the same federal law enforcement support program last year. One of the Humvees will be replaced by the MRAP and the other likely will be returned to the federal government as well, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said.

But concerns have arisen over insurance and maintenance costs associated with the MRAP, as well as the way in which Sheriff John P. Burns moved the authorization for the vehicle through the board’s committee process.

“They accepted this thing without board authorization. ... It flies in the face of how we’re supposed to do things,” Mr. Gray said.

James L. Nabywaniec, R-Calcium, chairman of the board’s Health and Human Services Committee, is concerned about the message the acquisition is sending at a time when other departments are being asked to save money wherever they can.

“Nothing’s ever for free. There are costs to this,” Mr. Nabywaniec said. “This is coming at a time when we are telling our department heads that they need to tighten their belts and then this comes out of nowhere. It’s more about a consistent message.”

Revenues are down about $3.5 million, according to Mr. Nabywaniec, in part because of less than stellar sales tax returns.

“It doesn’t make sense to just grab these things if there’s no use for the vehicle itself,” said Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, chairman of the Planning and Development Committee. “Unless I hear some really compelling evidence to the contrary, I am adamantly opposed to it.”

But other legislators are in favor of the new vehicle.

Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, chairman of the General Services Committee, which oversees the budget of the Sheriff’s Department, said that costs associated with the vehicle will be minimal: about $1,000 a year for insurance.

And it will cost an estimated $500 a year in miscellaneous maintenance fees, according to Jefferson County Highway Superintendent James L. Lawrence Jr.

“The initial information is that the impact will be very minimal but we will make an informed decision based on the facts,” Mr. Reed said.

Legislator Robert D. Ferris, R-Watertown, also supports the sheriff keeping the vehicle.

“I don’t really have a problem with it. That’s six people you can get closer to a situation,” Mr. Ferris said. “As long as the sheriff doesn’t take it to the grocery store, I don’t have a problem with it.”

For now, the vehicle will remain off the road. Insurance is contingent upon the approval of the full Board of Legislators, which won’t meet again until Oct. 1.

In the meantime, the acquisition may face a challenge from the Finance and Rules Committee, which Mr. Gray oversees.

The department insignia will not be applied until after the approval of the full board is secured, Undersheriff Paul W. Trudeau said.

According to Mr. Trudeau, the need for the vehicle is clearly evident, especially in light of recent events.

“Take a look at what just happened in Washington, D.C.,” Mr. Trudeau said. “One of the first vehicles on scene was the same vehicle as what we call a BearCat.”

BearCat, which is an acronym for Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck, is a 9-ton vehicle used by Special Weapons and Tactics, or SWAT, -style teams to respond to high-risk situations.

BearCats sell for $200,000 to $275,000. The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department has one. It has been used three times in the last three years to respond to standoffs in Jefferson County. MRAPs cost $600,000 on average.

Some journalists and critics have voiced concerns, however, that programs like the one that delivered the sheriff’s new jet-black MRAP are contributing to a militarization of police forces throughout the country, leading to an overuse of combat-style raids on American soil.

Mr. Trudeau said the new vehicle would be deployed rarely, if at all.

“This is not an everyday patrol vehicle. If we roll that, there’s a good reason to roll it,” Mr. Trudeau said.

If the county does not like the vehicle, it can return it at any time to the Department of Defense, Mr. Hagemann said.

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