Montgomery County Sheriff John Durante yesterday threatened legal action to stop the county from closing five DUI processing centers, a move that would save the county $300,000 in budget year 2009.

In a sharply worded letter to County Commissioners James R. Matthews, Joseph M. Hoeffel and Bruce L. Castor Jr., Durante warned that shuttering the centers would put "public safety at risk."

County officials yesterday termed themselves "surprised" by Durante's letter, and described the move as "premature" since the budget won't be passed until Dec. 22.

"No formal action has happened," County Solicitor Barry Miller said. "He acts as though we're turning the drunks loose in Montgomery County. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Durante gave no time frame for filing the suit.

The centers, which conduct blood-alcohol testing on suspected drunk drivers, are in Bridgeport, Towamencin, Willow Grove, Lower Pottsgrove and Lower Gwynedd. The first opened in 1987.

The goal, Durante said, is to save time for state police or municipal officers so they can get back on patrol immediately, and not remain with the suspects while they are being processed.

"It takes two hours to process a person," Durante said. "They're working their communities trying to make it safe, and they're stuck with this person."

But solicitor Miller said a lot of police choose not to use the centers, which aren't open 24/7.

"Municipal police departments take some of the people to the DUI centers for chemical tests and videotaping," Miller said. "But a lot are taken to a local hospital for blood testing.

"The question is whether the county should continue to maintain the centers if they're not utilized the vast majority of the time."

District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said the county handled 1,607 drunk-driving cases from February 2007 to August 2008, but she didn't have numbers on how many went through the centers.

"When a police officer has a DUI suspect, the officer has to make a decision that best serves the needs of the particular case and the community," she said. "It has been extremely helpful over many years for the police to have both options available."

Ferman said in any budgetary question, "you have to balance all sides of the equation."

Up-front funding for the centers comes from the county's general fund. The sheriff's costs are offset by $150 of the $550 fee paid by those entered into the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition program for first-time offenders of all kinds. In his letter, Durante took issue with the county's continuing to collect the $150 fee.

"These funds should be appropriated to the Sheriff's Department solely for the operation of the DUI centers," he wrote. "If the county commissioners do succeed in shutting down the DUI centers, then I contend that the collection of said fee is illegal."

Castor agreed with Durante: "If we're not going to have the sheriffs doing this stuff, the county shouldn't be allowed to collect the fee."

On Monday, the commissioners aired a $482 million draft budget for 2009 that calls for no tax increase and shaves expenditures.

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 or bcook@phillynews.com.