SPCA Dumps Contract after Cecil County Commish Pass Costly Animal Law Overhaul, on 3-2 Vote
The Cecil County Commissioners, by the usual 3-2 vote, Tuesday adopted an overhaul of the countyâ€™s animal ordinance that was three years in the making. And within hours, the Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc., which has handled animal control for the county for decades, notified the county it planned to terminate its services to the county at the end of August.
County officials were caught by surprise. The actions leave in doubt the future of animal control services in the county; indeed, whether there will be any such services when the new ordinance takes effect on Oct. 1.
If the local non-profit group declines to continue its services to the county, it will be the latest area group to do so, following similar actions by the Delaware SPCA for the city of Wilmington and the Kent County (DE) SPCA for its home county in nearby Delaware. [Delaware SPCA notified the city of its intent to cancel, and its contract expired, but a one-year temporary accord was reached earlier this month, pending a state study panel review of animal control services statewide.]
CCSPCA officials said the proposed step did not mean the non-profit was throwing in the towel on its services to animals. Instead, the Chesapeake City-based group would recast itself as a â€śno killâ€ť animal rescue and adoption facility, with a low-cost, full service animal hospital, grooming and pet care facility. CCSPCA is one of the few shelters in the state or region with a full-time, licensed veterinarian on staff.
The CCSPCA had worked with a previous Commissioner-appointed task force on a different ordinance overhaul and endorsed a proposal that was put out to a public hearing 2/1/11. However, since then, nearly all task force members resigned and Mindy Carletti, a Perryville veterinarian, took control and she conducted an extensive re-write of the previous task forceâ€™s work.
The final Commissionersâ€™ vote Tuesday on the latest incarnation of the ordinance came as somewhat of a surprise to local and national groups that have been monitoring the process. At an informal commissionersâ€™ session to go over final changes a week ago it was said that there should be another public hearing due to significant changes since a 6/12 hearing on the ordinance, which will for the first time include cats in county animal laws.
But Commissionersâ€™ President James Mullin (R-1) put it on the agenda for Tuesday afternoonâ€™s formal commissionersâ€™ meeting and brought it to a final vote, with minimal discussion and no elaboration on the latest revisions. The tally was 3-2, with the usual Three Amigos voting majorityâ€”Commissioners James Mullin (R-1), Diana Broomell (R-4) and Michael Dunn (R-3)– voting for it. Commissioners Robert Hodge (R-5) and Tari Moore (R-2) voted no.
In response to Tuesdayâ€™s action by the commissioners, Michael J. Halter, the pro-bono attorney for the CCSPCA, wrote a letter to the commissioners several hours later, saying that the new ordinance was a â€śdrasticâ€ť overhaul of current law.
â€śAs expressed by the undersigned counsel at a public hearing regarding the revised animal control ordinance, the ordinance is in part unenforceable, unconstitutional and onerous. The added responsibilities that the revised statute creates upon the SPCA would require a substantial increase in the yearly cost of animal control to the county. The Commissioners in whole and/or in part have often noted their reluctance and lack of approval for any additional funds to support the proper enforcement of the animal control statute.â€ť
[SEE detailed Cecil Times report on hearing, ordinance here: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/06/cecil-county-animal-law-good-intentions-run-a-costly-amok-zoning-issues-ignored/ ]
[Also, see Cecil Times report of recent commissioner clashes on post-public hearing revisions to the ordinance: http://ceciltimes.com/2012/06/citizens-bark-but-cecil-county-commish-dont-heel-on-animal-law/ ]
Halter wrote that the CCSPCA proposes â€śthat the contract and its responsibilities there under be terminated effective August 30, 2012, unless a suitable alternative date can be reached by both parties.â€ť
The CCSPCA acts as an independent contractor to provide animal control services for the county, capturing strays, apprehending dangerous animals, assisting law enforcement agencies, and providing shelter and medical care to strays and owner-surrendered animals. After a current five-day holding period for strays supported by the county, the full cost of the animalsâ€™ care is borne by the non-profit CCSPCA, which also arranges adoptions of animals.
The county has frozen its payments to the CCSPCA for the past five fiscal years. Despite provisions in the then-pending new ordinance requiring multiple new duties– including kennel inspections, supervision of catteries, and an expanded eight-day mandatory holding period for strays– commissioners refused to budget any additional funds for animal control in the current FY 13 budget.
During Tuesdayâ€™s commissionersâ€™ meeting, Moore said that while she welcomed many provisions to provide better protections and humane care for animals, its enforceability was questionable and â€śthe cost of this ordinance is a no.â€ť Throughout the process, Moore has repeatedly questioned how much the changes would cost both taxpayers and individual citizens to be in compliance with its many new regulations and fees. But her questions went unanswered by the Amigos faction and Carletti.
Moore said it was â€śirresponsibleâ€ť to pass a law without knowing its costs. â€śNo one in this room would agree to buy something without knowing the cost,â€ť she said.
Hodge said that the latest version of the animal law was â€śan example of government overreach and government intrusion,â€ť including a new category of â€śhobby kennelsâ€ť for families that would be banned from having over two litters of puppies a year but would still have to obtain special licenses and county inspections of their homes.
Reading from written notes, Mullin declared that the overhauled ordinance would bring â€śaccountability and disclosureâ€ť to animal services and â€śputs to rest the wild west mentality,â€ť seemingly echoing accusations raised in 2009 by his political ally, Del. Michael Smigiel (R-36), of alleged animal abuse at the CCSPCA shelter.
In fact, an investigation by the State Police, requested by CCSPCA, and an independent review by the Caroline County Stateâ€™s Attorney cleared the SPCA of any wrongdoing and reported that Smigielâ€™s chief â€świtnessâ€ť failed a polygraph test and admitted to police that the accusations were lies. The Stateâ€™s Attorney also said that those who lied could have faced charges for filing false reports, but the intervention of Smigiel made that impossible because the false reports were made through him and his office, not directly to police. (Dunn was an aide to Smigiel at the time. )
Jeanne Deeming, executive director of the CCSPCA, said the decision to terminate the county contract was not taken lightly and that the agency was â€śvery worried about the welfare of the animalsâ€ť in the county without trained and certified animal control officers in charge and readily available veterinary medical services for injured stray animals.
She said the CCSPA met with county administrator Al Wein and county attorney Norman Wilson several weeks ago and offered a list of alternatives to control costs, make some modifications to regulatory burdens in the pending ordinance, and seek a compromise to continue services at reasonable cost to taxpayers. But commissioners declined to attend the meeting and CCSPCA was subsequently advised that a majority of commissioners had rejected the proposals out of hand.
Moore told Cecil Times she was not aware of those proposals but voiced her concerns about the fate of animal control services if the CCSPCA terminates its services. She said she asked Wein on Wednesday to begin a process for a â€śrequest for proposalâ€ť to seek alternative service providers.
However, the county did such an RFP two years ago and only CCSPCA responded. Since that time, other animal charities in the region have increasingly gotten out of the animal control services arena, including the Delaware groups, as part of a growing nationwide trend. Such groups have said they prefer to shift toward a â€śno killâ€ť model, which allows them to pick and choose which likely to be adopted pets to take in and reject admission to old, sick or vicious animals.
CCSPCA has been an â€śopen admissionâ€ť shelter, taking all animals from Cecil County regardless of breed, viciousness, age or illness. If necessary due to viciousness or injury, animals were humanely euthanized but the shelterâ€™s policy was not to euthanize animals for space reasons.
Hodge told Cecil Times he was â€śdisappointedâ€ť that the CCSPCA sent its letter and said the county had â€śno Plan Bâ€ť for what to do without that agencyâ€™s services.
Smigiel and some of his commissioner allies have in the past suggested that the sheriffâ€™s department should take over animal control. However, the Sheriff is independently elected and the commissioners have no legal authority to dictate how he runs his agency or assigns his deputies. And Sheriff Barry Janneyâ€™s budget was cut by the commissioners this year, as they rejected his requests for additional deputies, including two to deal with rampant illegal drug crimes and the prescription drug abuse epidemic in the county.
Deeming said the CCSPCA would be â€świlling to talkâ€ť with commissioners if they came to the agency with a sincere interest in resolving the issue and recognizing that additional duties must be met with corresponding funds. If that is not the case in the next few months, she said the organization would be willing to re-open the door in the future if there are changes in the ruling lineup in Elkton.
â€śWe could be back in animal control services in 24 hours,â€ť she said.
[Disclosure: The editor of Cecil Times has adopted several pets from CCSPCA and in the past served as an unpaid volunteer board member.]