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Civics, pols push to keep harbor patrol of Rikers

Astoria civic and political leaders are protesting the city's decision to eliminate harbor patrols in the waters around Rikers Island, a move they say puts the city at risk by leaving the power plants and LaGuardia Airport in northwest Queens susceptible to terrorism.

Officials from the city Department of Corrections cited financial constraints as their reason for eliminating the 11-officer patrol, which they said will save $762,000 a year as part of the mayor's demand that the agency slice $40 million from its budget.

"Our budget responsibilities have to be met. There are better ways of managing our security process at Rikers Island," said Tom Antenen, the department's spokesman. "These are difficult fiscal times and we have to make some difficult fiscal decisions."

Antenen said the patrol, which consisted of two main boats and a handful of smaller craft, did not offer full-time security protection and was deemed redundant given the perimeter surveillance done on the island itself. The 11 officers will be reassigned to other duties to reduce the department's reliance on overtime.

"There was not a boat plying the waters on a 24/7 basis," Antenen said. "Typically the harbor unit would make two perimeter tours around Rikers Island in the water on a daily basis."

But civic leaders insist the harbor patrol's presence protects far more than Rikers Island, constituting the city's only security force for the waters surrounding the northwestern part of the borough.

"Two tours is better than nothing," said Rose Marie Poveromo, the president of the United Community Civic Association in Astoria. "What we're asking is they not only reinstate the harbor patrol, but they beef it up because it is such a sensitive area."

The East River shoreline in Astoria and Elmhurst is lined by LaGuardia Airport as well as a handful of power plants owned by the New York Power Authority, Reliant Energy and Keyspan Energy.

State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris (D-Astoria) and City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) are calling on the city to either re-establish the patrol or compensate for its loss by patrolling the waters with Police Department vessels.

"Given the current state of affairs, we should be increasing security, not lessening it," Gianaris said in a phone interview Tuesday.

"With the threat of war on the horizon, we cannot allow budget cuts to affect the safety of the public," Vallone said in a release.

Gianaris claims the Rikers Island patrols were actually more extensive than Antenen described, consisting of two boats that each did two tours every eight-hour shift for a total of 12 runs a day.

"Each agency is making its own cuts, and I think Corrections looked at this solely from the point of view of how it would affect its duties to Rikers Island and keeping inmates from escaping," Gianaris said. "I don't think anybody looked at it more globally and realized the Rikers patrol also provided protection to the power plants and to the airport. Without that there's no coverage on the waterfront. It's a very exposed area."

Representatives of the power companies declined to comment on the specifics of their security plans.

But Liam Baker, the asset manager for Reliant Energy, said the Corrections Department units did provide a visible presence in the waters surrounding the power plants.

"We would very much like to see the patrols continue," Baker said Tuesday. "We still are very confident we'll be able to keep the stations and the power plants secure. We have a lot of faith in our in-house security, but additional security is always welcome."

Gianaris proposed legislation in the state Assembly last year that would allow the state to assess the power plants and require the companies to increase security if necessary.

He said he anticipates the measure will be passed in the Assembly in the next few weeks and is currently working with his colleagues in the state Senate to promote its passage in that house.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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