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Boaters Fight For Patrol

County budget may clip marine force.

Ever since September 11, Officer Steve Selby and Officer Steve Keeney have been checking beneath the bridges and dams around the Occoquan. They're able to do that because, unlike the typical Fairfax County police officer, they don't travel by car or foot. They comprise the two-man Fairfax County Marine Patrol Unit 003 and they travel by boat.

"We are looking for anything that doesn't belong there," said Selby.

This checking of bridges and dams is now added to the long list of things that Selby and Keeney have been doing for the past seven years, things like arresting drunken drivers, rescuing people who have fallen out of boats, and holding boating safety courses.

Last year, the pair logged 1,035 hours on the water. They performed 286 vessel boardings, inspecting 272 of those boats and putting 50 out of service for safety violations. Selby and Keeney also handled 337 cases; 27 of those were rescues, 38 were out-of-jurisdiction assists and eight were EMS calls.

With all that they have to do, it would seem that they need more men and an additional craft. Instead, Fairfax County's proposed fiscal 2004 budget doesn't even list them. That's because they are not in the proposed budget. If passed, the new budget will eliminate the entire operation.

MEMBERS OF THE Mount Vernon Yacht Club learned about the planned budget cut when they were asked to assess the value of the 26-foot catamaran which is currently used as the patrol boat. They then realized that the patrol had been left out of the budget, and they had been asked to give it a value in case the boat had to be sold.

"Given everything that's going on, it's probably not the best time to cut," said Jim Hamrick, commodore of the Mount Vernon Yacht Club.

Rear Commodore Christopher Ruckman said, "It's the only law enforcement boat we ever see. They enforce the no wake zone by our marina, and they also enforce the drinking and boating laws."

Hamrick, Ruckman and Vice Commodore Bonnie Breneman wrote a letter to Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerry Hyland, saying, "On behalf of the 475 members of the Mount Vernon Yacht Club, we are writing to express our dismay that Fairfax County is considering eliminating the Fairfax Marine Patrol. MVYC strongly opposes abandoning this important service. We urge you to support security and safety on the Potomac and Occoquan Rivers by fighting to keep the Marine Patrol."

The letter went on to say, "At a time when most people believe law enforcement and emergency response services should be increased, not decreased, we see little sense in eliminating the Marine Patrol. The Marine Patrol's 15-year history suggests that we have no more effective way to police those areas of the county. It is understandable that budget concerns prompted the suggestion to cut the Marine Patrol, but the moderate cost of the two-man Marine Patrol Section is almost invisible next to other budget items."

Gordon Hill works at Prince William Marine and is a member of the Yacht Club. He said, "Stephen Selby has become pretty well known to the boating community, participating in safety classes and other things. We [at the marina] see the Marine Patrol in action; when they bring in boats with inebriated captains or boats that have run into unlighted markers."

HYLAND IS WELL AWARE of the concerns. In addition to the letter, he said that he has been getting plenty of phone calls complaining about the cut, and said, "The proposal to eliminate it [Marine Patrol] is ill-advised, misguided and flat wrong. We have a need on the water to provide protection."

With Pohick and Mason Neck in this area, the cuts would hit close to home, but supervisors on the other side of the county may not understand the need for the patrol.

"Those who put in at Pohick and Mason Neck know the conflict with the types and numbers of craft. There are canoes, motor craft, sailboats and jet skis. Put that all together and there are a tremendous number of people who recreate on the water. To not have anybody there to establish reason and order is not good sense," said Hyland.

"The efforts of the Marine Patrol are essential to the safety of the boating, tax paying, and voting public," said George Ostrom, a member of the Occoquan River Maritime Association.

"The officers are superb representatives of the Fairfax County Police Department. They are extremely knowledgeable of the laws, and they are very effective in the enforcement of them."

FOR SELBY AND KEENEY, it's more than just a job, it's a mission. "In the seven years that we've patrolled, the amount of boats that have used the Occoquan has more than doubled, but the number of tickets we write has been cut in half," said Selby.

He attributes that to the fact that they're proactive. "We try to educate, we hold safety courses and we are available to speak to any group," he said.

Now they feel ití' even more important to get out on the water because of the threat of terrorism. "We're constantly getting threats because we have major railroads, major bridges, a power plant and the Occoquan Dam. We patrol everything from the Occoquan River to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge," said Selby.