Staten Island Advance
March 20, 2008

Mandatory budget cuts could hurt Staten Island DA's office

By Sally Goldenberg and John Annese

At a time when borough law enforcement officials are grappling with an increase in major crime -- a trend that flies in the face of the citywide drop in crime -- the Staten Island district attorney's office is being forced to make cutbacks amounting to more than $500,000.

Eight assistant district attorney positions, coverage to process night-time arrests and weekend court are all on the chopping block as cops struggle with a 25 percent increase in crime since the same period last year.

Every city agency has been ordered by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to cut its proposed budgets for fiscal year 2009 by 8 percent -- reductions the mayor says are necessary because of falling revenue from Wall Street, looming deficits in future city budgets and the national housing slump's effect on the local market.

District Attorney Daniel Donovan's proposed budget hit list was presented yesterday to the City Council's Committee on Public Safety, which heard grim reports from all five city district attorneys, following an hour-long testimony and question-and-answer period on staffing shortages with Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

Kelly reiterated the NYPD's plan to cut its allotted head count by 1,000 officers in order to save $37.3 million in fiscal year 2009, which begins July 1.

Donovan, who sent a representative to the hearing yesterday, warned in prepared remarks that his office would have to slice its spending plan by $573,380, causing the loss of the assistant district attorneys -- a 17 percent drop in legal staff. He later told the Advance he would try to save on personnel costs by not replacing retiring attorneys rather than handing out pink slips.

"We could be faced with the possibility of eliminating nighttime complaint room coverage. This will have an adverse effect on arrest-to-arraignment time," Donovan's prepared testimony read. Specifically, police officers making arrests at night would have to wait until the following morning to meet with assistant district attorneys to sign complaints.

Another casualty of the budget ax would be weekend court, he said.

The district attorney's office "shifted resources to staff weekend court" but those costs were absorbed without additional funding, he noted. "The demand for added coverage has further stretched the resources of an already understaffed office," Donovan said. The budget cut and staff reductions "increase the possibility of eliminating the necessary manpower for (weekend court) as well," he added.

All of this comes at a time when crime continues to spike on the Island.

The latest police statistics show major crimes in the borough over the past two and a half months have spiked 27 percent from the same time period last year, with across-the-board increases in every major crime except murder.

Major crimes are defined as murders, rapes, robberies, felony assaults, burglars, grand larceny and automobile thefts.

The increase appears to be driven by dramatic upticks in robberies, burglaries and grand larcenies, and a 114 percent spike in rapes, a statistic that is somewhat deceptive due to the relatively low number of incidents: 15 between Jan. 1 and March 16, compared to seven from the same time period last year.

"You do see an uptick in crime on Staten Island and we're concerned about it," Kelly told reporters after his testimony in City Hall. "We're always concerned about increase in crime, but it's important to put it in some context."

He said if the Island were a city in its own right, it would have a record low crime rate among cities with more than 100,000 residents.

Council Committee Chairman Peter Vallone, a Queens Democrat, called attention to the borough's rise in crime when slamming the proposed cuts during Kelly's testimony.

"I, for one, am of the opinion that at some point, and we may have reached that point right now, your force is so overextended that it will not be able to continue to make the gains that we have seen in the past," Vallone said, referring to the city's 6 percent drop in overall crime last year. "I believe we are about at that point right now. I think the recent rise in crime on Staten Island is evidence of that."

On the Island, the biggest increases in crime include:

North Shore: A 57.5 percent spike in robberies, 63 this year to date, compared to 40 from the same time period last year

Mid-Island: A 66.6 percent jump in robberies, up from 21 to 35, a 39 percent increase in grand larcenies, from 100 to 139, and a 300 percent increase in rapes, from 1 to 4

South Shore: A 250 percent increase in burglaries, from 14 to 49.