Budget constraints are driving the changes, but some question whether the program can continue to be as effective

CANANDAIGUA — The STOP-DWI program in Ontario County, seen as a model for other counties for its efforts in trying to reduce injury and death from drivers impaired by alcohol and other drugs, is now in the hands of the county office of Public Health.

County officials said the move is necessary because of budget constraints. But some question whether the revamped program can maintain the momentum that has helped make Ontario County one of the state’s most effective in curbing instances of driving while intoxicated.

The county Board of Supervisors on Thursday voted unanimously to abolish the STOP-DWI program administrator position. The board appointed county Public Health Director Mary Beer as program coordinator and created a STOP-DWI program specialist under the office she leads.

“It’s unfortunate,” said Sue Cirencione, who resigned Jan. 17 as the county’s STOP-DWI program administrator over the county’s decision. “I believe it impacts traffic safety.”

Cirencione was a probation officer for 15 years and worked with the program before she was appointed to lead STOP-DWI in 2014.

“The resources are still there, but there’s a lack of manpower to do the work or people with the knowledge,” Cirencione said.

One of the changes involved eliminating a dedicated DWI enforcement officer and patrol car in the Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Kevin Henderson said he was able to keep the car using money from his budget, but he no longer has an officer focused solely on DWI arrests.

“I don't have enough staffing for just DWI,” said Henderson. That means deputies respond to calls, but unlike before there is not a deputy on patrol looking for impaired drivers.

With all the concerns Public Health has to deal with, victim advocate Sarah Palermo said she doesn’t see how STOP-DWI will be able to get the needed attention. Palermo’s daughter was killed in 2003 in the city of Rochester by a driver impaired by alcohol and cocaine. Palermo speaks regularly to offenders convicted of impaired driving to educate them on how the crime affects families of victims left behind when their loved ones are killed. Her goal is to prevent offenders from repeating their offense.

Ontario County’s innovative and aggressive approach to DWI often comes up, Palermo said. The county for decades was number one in the state for its DWI conviction rate. District Attorney Jim Ritts said it remains one of the top counties.

The Ontario County STOP-DWI office has been responsible for education and development of local programs that discourage drinking and driving, part of a team effort with prosecutors, probation, and law enforcement. The program supports treatment and has been instrumental in data collection valuable to the Sheriff’s Office. Palermo said STOP-DWI also focuses on prevention.

“Under STOP-DWI, the county has taken a tough line and also tries to help people not become reoffenders,” Palermo said.

Cirencione said STOP-DWI ran the ignition interlock program, which involves using an in-car device to prevent a vehicle from starting until after a breath alcohol test is taken.

“Ontario County is one of the most compliant in the state,” she said, adding that STOP-DWI did law enforcement training and worked with other counties to enhance efforts.

Palermo, a member of the Ontario County Traffic Safety Board, worked with Cirencione to establish a sobriety checkpoint program through STOP-DWI. The first DWI checkpoint in 2018 was conducted in memory of Palermo’s daughter, Lindsay Kyle, who was killed at age 26 in the crash caused by a drug- and alcohol-impaired driver. Sheriff’s deputies and Canandaigua police made several arrests overnight Nov. 2, 2018, on Lakeshore Drive. At checkpoints, officers give drivers a card with a DWI victim’s photo and information to remind people that driving while intoxicated can result in more than just a ticket.

In early January, Cirencione commented on an increase in DWI arrests in Ontario County compared with the previous year. While there has been a staffing shortage in some of the law enforcement agencies, Cirencione said she believes public awareness campaigns initiated by Stop-DWI led to an increase in calls to 911 centers by citizens who spot behavior that resembles what could indicate a driver impaired by alcohol or other drugs.

“From my vantage point, if you have a program that is effective, you need to follow through,” said Palermo.

Dru Malavase was the county’s STOP-DWI coordinator for more than a decade, before she retired in 2014. For her contributions, Malavase received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York State STOP-DWI Foundation and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She said she is confident in the future of the STOP-DWI program in Ontario County. She talked to the director of public health and has offered to help her in any way she can, she said.

“A lot of progress was made under Dru and Sue,” said George Herren, a member of the county Traffic Safety Board. He doesn’t want to see the program lose momentum.

As a model program for other counties, “we want to maintain that reputation,” Herren said, adding that as the program has grown over the years, so has the population and the issues. He mentioned safety involving drivers, boaters and pedestrians, along with challenges posed by the opioid crisis and the possible legalization of recreational marijuana use.

Herren, Malavase and many others spoke highly of Beer and have confidence in the future of STOP-DWI.

“We support the program 100 percent,” said Board of Supervisors Vice Chairman Bob Green before the Board of Supervisors meeting last Thursday.

Beer was not at the board meeting. She was in Albany meeting with other health officials about the coronavirus.

Green, who is chairman of the county Traffic Safety Board, explained in a private conversation before the meeting that the STOP-DWI program is regulated by the state and does not permit use of taxpayer funds. The program is funded entirely from fines paid by convicted impaired drivers.

“We couldn’t keep up. We were pulling from other funds,” Green said. A review by the state and by county attorneys showed the county had to make changes, he said.

“We do need to reallocate and reassess how we run this program," Green said before the Board of Supervisors meeting. "We are revamping, reworking it.”

The program will be discussed at a public meeting of the Traffic Safety Board on April 8. Members of the governor's Traffic Safety Committee are expected to attend, Green said.