By JOE LoTEMPLIO Press-Republican
---- — PLATTSBURGH — A push is on to keep staffing levels stable at a Plattsburgh-based U.S. Customs and Border Protection patrol unit.
In a personal meeting with the nominee for commissioner of Customs and Border Protection Richard “Gil” Kerlikowske, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer pressed him to maintain the current level of security along New York’s northern border despite an overall climate of budget cutbacks, according to a news release from Schumer’s office.
North Country Congressman Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) also sent a letter to Thomas S. Winkowski, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Patrol, saying he was misled about the future of the unit.
Schumer specifically urged Kerlikowske to maintain the total number of flight hours along the northern border, in order to ensure there is no significant drop-off in security.
Customs and Border Protection operates two air and marine bases in Upstate New York — in Buffalo and also Plattsburgh at Plattsburgh International Airport.
Kerlikowske, the release noted, served as Buffalo police commissioner and understands and appreciates the need for state-of-the-art border security.
“The federal government’s budget constraints are real and must be addressed, but critical northern border protections from Plattsburgh to Buffalo must not be sacrificed,” Schumer said.
“I am urging nominee Mr. Kerlikowske to ensure that surveillance of the northern border does not suffer, and that flight hours are maintained across the state, so that we can protect our border communities and continue to fight back against illegal border activities in those regions.”
Owens’s letter to Winkowski said that he had a thorough conversation with the Border Patrol’s Office of Air and Marine Assistant Commissioner Randolph Alles on Aug. 1 about the unit.
Owens said he was told then that any planned reduction in staffing would occur incrementally over the next three to five years.
“I have just learned today that CBP plans to significantly reduce the size of the Plattsburgh Air Branch within the next 90 days,” his letter to Winkowski read.
“I hope that I was not deliberately misled during my Aug. 1 conversation regarding CBP’s true intentions for the northern border.”
Owens said that he understood that of the 25 people working at the Plattsburgh station, most of them not volunteering to be re-located to the southwestern border, would be forced to re-locate or terminated.
“I am deeply concerned with the security implications of this precipitous reduction in surveillance resources along the northern border,” Owens’s letter said.
“Beyond the worrisome security implication of a rapid draw-down, I am also seriously concerned with the lack of transparency displayed in this important decision. I would like to know precisely what has changed since I spoke with Assistant Commissioner Alles, and why I was not updated on these important developments.”
‘VITAL TO SECURITY’
Last year, the Plattsburgh base found 18 people who crossed the border illegally and more than 1,500 pounds of marijuana.
But according to Customs and Border Protection, the industry-wide price of airplane maintenance increases by 5.4 percent per year, and the agency is in search of savings.
Schumer said he told Kerlikowske that coverage of the northern border must not suffer. He specifically said, according to his release, that “flight hours” for pilots that search for border crossers or drug smugglers must be maintained.
Clinton County Sheriff David Favro agreed with Schumer’s assessment that the Border Patrol unit has been vital to security of the area since it was established in 2003.
“That has been one of the best things to happen for this region since the base closed (1995),” Favro told the Press-Republican.
“They have been invaluable, and to take them away or cut back on them would be a travesty.”
‘FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE’
Favro said the unit not only polices those trying to enter the United States illegally and drug smugglers, it helps with local law enforcement. He said they have helped out with air surveillance for manhunts on several occasions, such as the shooting of a State Police trooper in 2005, and a bank robbery in Plattsburgh in 2012.
The unit can also play a critical role in preventing terrorists from crossing the border, the sheriff said.
“When it comes to safety and security, especially along the northern border, cost is not always the most important thing,” Favro said.
“We are really a first line of defense for New York City, and we are not immune to having terrorists try to come through our region.”
‘THE OLD GAME’
North Country Chamber of Commerce President Garry Douglas said the Border Patrol unit has been a great benefit to the area and must be maintained.
“Now we’re in danger of returning to the old game of the southern border taking resources and personnel from the north,” he said in a statement.
“The southern border definitely needs help, but not at the expense of the northern border.”
Douglas expressed appreciation to Schumer and also Owens for what he called their strong response to the issue.
The patrol unit, he said, is “a key part of maintaining the security of the northern border, which in turn supports commerce and travel.”
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