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Niagara County’s “swamped” pistol permit office cuts back hours

LOCKPORT – Niagara County’s pistol permit office is so buried in work that it’s going to be closed to the public one day a week to give workers a fighting chance to clear the backlog of paperwork without being interrupted by customers.

County Clerk Wayne F. Jagow announced this week that, starting in June, the office in the basement of the County Courthouse in Lockport will not be open on Wednesdays, but that doesn’t mean the employees will have the day off. Quite the contrary, said Jagow’s deputy, Wendy J. Roberson. “It’s beyond swamped,” she said.

The permit office has three employees, two clerical workers and one pistol permit examiner and liaison, who has been out sick since late February.

“They’re doing an outstanding job, but they’re human beings,” Roberson said.

County legislators are planning to help. A resolution to hire another employee for the pistol permit office was introduced at Tuesday’s Legislature meeting, where it was sent to committee for discussion. It called for appropriating $39,240 from the county’s contingency fund to pay the salary and benefits of a pistol permit examiner and court liaison for the rest of the year. The job would carry a salary of $36,315 for a full year.

Since Wednesday tends to be the slowest day of the week in the pistol permit office, it was chosen for the closing, Jagow said. Roberson said on an average weekday, the workers field 30 to 35 phone calls and about 30 in-person applicants or questioners.

The six members of the Republican majority in the Legislature who co-sponsored the resolution to hire one more employee blamed the state’s unpopular SAFE Act, the gun-control bill rushed through the State Legislature at the demand of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in January 2013, for the backlog.

“Now it’s going to cost taxpayers more to comply,” said Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson. The County Legislature passed resolutions demanding the repeal of the SAFE Act, but that idea has gone nowhere in Albany, and the law’s constitutionality, except for the seven-bullet limit in a handgun magazine, has been upheld in federal court.

However, figures released by Roberson showed that pistol permit applications already were increasing before the SAFE Act became law.

In 2011, the county received 518 applications for new pistol permits. That figure rose to 759 in 2012 and 1,029 applications in 2013. In 2014, there were 800 applications, and in the first four months of this year, there were 219.

One of the problems the SAFE Act created was a provision that allowed pistol permit holders to file a form opting out of public disclosure of personal information about their permits. Before the SAFE Act, pistol permits were subject to the Freedom of Information Law, and a newspaper in Westchester County created a storm in December 2012 by obtaining a list of all the pistol permit holders in Westchester and Rockland counties and posting it on its website.

Roberson said 20,000 opt-out forms are stacked up in the Lockport office, still not entered in the state computer system by the local employees.

Meanwhile, 600 permit holders are awaiting hearings because their permits have been suspended for one reason or another. Roberson said the licensing judge, County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III, has been holding pistol permit hearings one day a month, dealing with about 10 cases on that day.

Roberson said Murphy has recently added a second day each month for pistol cases, on top of his other duties in criminal court, civil court, integrated domestic violence court and surrogate’s court.

Besides the suspension hearings, there is a backlog of about 600 applications for which more information is needed before they can be sent to the mandatory background check. At any given time, 150 to 200 new applications are waiting on the desks of the three workers, along with 100 to 150 cases for which more information is needed after a hearing.

“There’s no letup in sight, because we don’t know what’s going to happen with recertification,” Roberson said. The SAFE Act requires all permit holders to be recertified every five years. Roberson said that process is supposed to be initiated by the State Police, who have yet to do so.

“County clerks that are operating pistol permit offices haven’t gotten any of that $30 million that went to the State Police to build all these databases,” Roberson complained. “We would certainly be grateful on behalf of the 29,000 pistol permit holders in Niagara County. We would like to serve them.”