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In an ideal world, the deputy would be starting his shifts at the sheriff’s substation in Elma Town Hall – just as a labor arbitrator says he should.

But town leaders in Elma have a grudge against Sheriff’s Deputy Timothy J. Higgins. Weeks ago, in early April, they demanded he not set foot in Town Hall on Bowen Road or on any other town property, reportedly because he threatened them.

The arbitrator said he found “not one scrap of evidence” to support their contention.

Still, Sheriff Timothy B. Howard and his second-in-command, Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman, honor the town’s wishes.

“They own the property, they are the landlord, they provide us with that station free of charge,” Wipperman said. “We are simply complying with their demand.”

So Higgins starts his shifts by retrieving his patrol vehicle from a back lot at Erie County-owned Elma Meadows Park – neutral land.

He has no desk, no land-line telephone, no locker, no ready supply of standard department forms. He goes to substations outside his territory to charge up his radio. He stops at restaurants to hit the bathroom.

He arrested someone the other day, but – barred from the substation – he asked another deputy to take the defendant in to handle the paperwork. It’s not clear what he’ll do if called to testify in Elma Town Court, as deputies often must.

The arbitrator determined in late March that Howard exiled Higgins from his regular Elma-area territory to Grand Island and kept him there without good reason, violating the labor agreement that lets deputies bid for their work assignments based on seniority.

Howard, as told, returned Higgins days later to District 3, which includes Elma, Marilla and Wales. But to meet Elma’s demand, Howard banned Higgins from the sheriff’s substation in Town Hall.

Hoping to avoid showdown

The president of the patrol deputies’ labor union, Daniel E. Walczak, says Higgins deserves to be treated like every other deputy in District 3. Walczak said he hopes the matter will be resolved when he and Higgins meet today with top sheriff’s officials.

The sheriff’s team worries that Elma will throw the sheriff’s patrol out of Town Hall – even though the Republican-controlled board and the Republican sheriff are friends.

“We do not want to put us in a situation where we could be asked to leave that station,” Wipperman said.

What if Howard told the Elma board members that they cannot make him bar a deputy from the substation? Would the Town Board tell the sheriff to find quarters elsewhere?

“I would hope it wouldn’t come to that,” Town Supervisor Dennis M. Powers said.

Powers contends that Higgins threatened the Town Board when talking with a town employee amid a simmering political feud.

Higgins says he threatened no one when talking early in 2012 with former Elma councilman and current town prosecutor Dean S. Puleo. Nonetheless, the supervisor says town leaders are justified in barring Higgins from town property now that he again patrols the town. After the arbitrator March 25 ordered Higgins returned to District 3, Powers again stated the Town Board’s resolve.

“The Elma Town Board is extremely disappointed with this decision,” he said in a letter to Wipperman on April 9, “and remains adamant that the Town of Elma does not want Deputy Higgins to be in or on any town-owned property.”

Higgins prefers District 3 for at least a couple of reasons. First, it is closer to his home than Grand Island. Also, with three town courts in the district, deputies can get more “court time,” which is paid at the overtime rate. That added about $5,000 a year to Higgins’ gross wages.

The wheels for the dispute started turning before the talk between Higgins and Puleo.

“A lot of this was ridiculous from the start,” Puleo said. “Frankly, Tim and I were friends. I thought we were friends. And then, because of some political affiliations, this all came about. This is part of a bigger story.”

During the 2011 election season, Higgins openly favored incumbent Joseph A. Sakowski for town judge when challenged by Puleo, a local lawyer and a town councilman at the time. Puleo’s campaign was hit hard when a domestic incident report about him went public, and Sakowski won the race.

Puleo suspected that Higgins unearthed the Sheriff’s Office document. He says he kept copies of the derisive statements that Higgins made about him on his Facebook page. But an internal investigation cleared Higgins of all allegations.

Political retribution suspected

Then came phase two. Higgins and some other deputies would moonlight as part-time court officers in Elma. To Higgins, the job was worth about $4,000 a year – until the Town Board, including Puleo, voted just weeks after Election Day in 2011 to replace the current court officers with officers employed by the state court system.

Higgins suspected that the sudden terminations were political payback, and on Feb. 15, 2012, he filed a notice of claim against the town, signaling his intent to sue. After protests from town leaders, the sheriff bounced Higgins to Grand Island within days.

The arbitrator, Michael S. Lewandowski, said in his review that the sheriff could indeed reassign a deputy to avoid a conflict of interest between a deputy and a local government. But Higgins’ supervisor told him he could return to District 3 if he dropped the claim, and Higgins did so on April 2, 2012.

With that, Howard lost his reason to deny his most-senior patrol deputy the work assignment he favored. “The justification for reassignment disappeared,” Lewandowski wrote, because the town’s other accusations were either “not true or unsupported.”

The arbitrator said Higgins should be compensated for his lost court time and his extra expenses commuting to Grand Island starting from April 2 of last year.

Higgins is a son of Thomas F. Higgins, the Erie County sheriff from 1986 to 1997. As a young deputy in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Higgins was named in four lawsuits alleging brutality or false arrest. A trial on one lawsuit revealed that Higgins’ superiors found he had trouble controlling his temper. Higgins, who acknowledges his past, remained on the force under two subsequent sheriffs and many more supervisors.

Prosecutor is ‘a little afraid’

Puleo called Higgins a loose cannon.

“I’m a little afraid. I sent a letter to the sheriff, to Sheriff Howard, putting him on notice that, with all due respect, if a sheriff’s deputy vehicle pulls me over, I am not stopping my car. I am not getting out of my vehicle,” he told The Buffalo News. “I am going to call 911 and ask to have a state trooper there because I don’t know what these guys are capable of. Again, I am familiar with this guy’s history.”

Yet Puleo said he and Higgins will have to work together if Higgins must testify in a criminal matter that Puleo prosecutes. On those occasions, Puleo said, Higgins would have to enter Town Hall.

Higgins recently asked Powers through an intermediary for a chance to see if the two can work this out. Powers says he’s willing but wants to poll the Town Board first.

“I personally don’t have an ax to grind with Higgins other than this incident,” Powers said. “There’s nothing that he has done to me personally.”

But he summed up the board’s sentiment so far: “From our point of view, what has changed? We all feel that nothing has changed from the town’s standpoint,” he said. “He can say whatever he wants to say. The arbitrator can say whatever they want to say. What has changed?”

email: mspina@buffnews.com