New Animal Shelter Chief Tells Cecil County Council of Plans for ‘Sonic Enrichment,’ Lavender Oil Sprays; Budget Questions Remain on Costs of County Shelter Takeover
The newly hired director of the recently purchased Cecil County government-owned animal shelter made her first public appearance before a Cecil County Council budget workshop on Tuesday 5/17/16, displaying enthusiasm and energy– and practical naiveté– about operating an open-admissions, government-owned animal shelter and animal control program in a rural and lower-income county. Budget documents given to Council members, but not the public, gave a few more details of the planned program but still failed to account for major aspects of future operating costs.
Abigail (Abbey) Lightning Bingham, the new animal shelter head who has been on the job in Cecil County for a little over a week, appeared at a Tuesday afternoon County Council budget worksession in tandem with her boss, David Trolio, the director of the newly-named Department of Community Services, formerly the county’s bus services and senior center operations. (Trolio has been expanding his program portfolio, and budget funding, significantly in the past few years under the administration of current County Executive Tari Moore.)
Bingham, who has six months experience as “shelter supervisor” of the open-admissions government-owned animal care facility in Baltimore County, told the Cecil County Council that she wanted to create a welcoming environment for homeless animals in the county and would advance initiatives such as spraying “calming” and “essential oils” such as lavender at the shelter building, and allocating resources to create new “sonic enrichment” programs at the shelter for playing “classical music” for the animals.
(Reality check: in the past, the same shelter facility that the county recently bought from the Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc. (CCSPCA) in Chesapeake City, used the existing intercom system to play radio music for the animals with no additional costs to pipe music to dog kennels. Classical music resulted in howls and barks, while piping in WXCY radio, the local country music radio station, brought quiet contentment to the kennels.)
An open admissions animal shelter is required to accept all dogs found or surrendered by local residents, while a limited admissions shelter—such as the Hawaii non-profit shelter Bingham spent most of her previous experience with—can pick and choose which highly adoptable animals to accept. [SEE previous CECIL TIMES report on Bingham’s hiring in Cecil County and her past experience here: http://ceciltimes.com/2016/05/moore-names-new-cecil-co-animal-shelter-director-has-several-months-as-baltimore-county-shelter-manager-hawaii-rescue-role/ ]
According to private budget documents given to the County Council for the first time on Tuesday—but not published on the county website as part of official budget documents—Bingham is being paid $63,606 in annual salary, plus full county employee health insurance, pension, disability, vacation and multiple other benefits. The usual county percentage for benefit costs, at least 30 percent, would bring the total taxpayer costs of Bingham’s employment to at least $82,800.
Other new private budget documents indicated the Moore administration plans to pay an animal control “supervisor” $52,000, plus full county benefits, and a second “animal control officer” would earn $33,280 per year plus full benefits. At the budget hearing, it was disclosed that interviews have been held and award of those two animal control jobs would be made in the next few days.
The planned pay scale of the animal control ‘supervisor’ who will actually report to Richard Brooks, head of the county Emergency Services department, is surprisingly high in comparison with the animal shelter director’s compensation for much broader duties. (However, Brooks is the second-highest paid county employee so high pay grades for staff under his authority might be a pattern.)
Appearing before the County Council, Bingham said she would seek to collaborate with local animal welfare, rescue and animal rights groups and would work to find new homes for abandoned/stray animals. All animals would be spayed/neutered and micro-chipped, to identify owners, before adoptions, she said. Under Moore’s plans, the county government would assume full and potentially long-term financial costs of stray or owner surrendered animals in the county—in contrast with past protocols under which private non-profit animal charities took over the care and adoption of animals after a brief five to eight day county-paid holding period.
Bingham said she wanted to obtain “pro bono” veterinary services for spay/neuter and medical care for animals at the shelter, although the budget includes a $60,000 line item for veterinary “professional services.” Given the limited number of private veterinarians in the county, and the changing economics of veterinary medicine with national chains taking over local animal hospitals, Bingham’s wishes may collide with the fiscal and professional realities of today’s veterinary medicine world.
Bingham said she wanted to use county jail inmates to provide care services to shelter animals, since animals were “non-judgmental” and could provide emotional support to inmates. She said she had discussed the matter with Barry Janney, currently head of the Community Corrections segment of the sheriff’s department. Janney, the former top cop and Sheriff in the county, previously allowed community corrections prisoners to perform limited services—such as painting and scraping kennels under the former CCSPCA ownership of the site.
Due to concerns about drugs and potentially violence-prone prisoners, Janney and the CCSPCA agreed that direct contact with animals and broad access to the facility was prohibited, because of the presence on site of animal tranquilizers and other drugs needed for animal care but sought by human drug addicts. In addition, kennel cleaning is a many times a day chore and inmates must be supervised by a Corrections Officer at all times, practically and financially limiting the number of hours inmates could be on site.
Nowhere in the specific “animal services” budget does the Moore administration account for numerous costs that will be incurred by the county shelter operations takeover. In particular, nowhere is there a line item for costs of electricity, propane for heating, garbage removal, insurance, security systems, and sanitation. In particular, the county has decided that the existing septic system is inadequate and is obtaining a $30,000 state grant to install septic holding tanks. But nowhere in the budget does the county account for the pumping and waste disposal costs for such holding tanks. (In the past, the CCSPCA staff hand-scooped outdoor kennel runs and deposited solid animal waste in containers for off-site waste disposal, paid by the group out of its own donated funds.)
Moore’s proposed animal control/animal services budget uses a broad figure of $720,000 for the upcoming Fiscal 2017 budget—the same amount she has been paying A Buddy for Life, Inc., a non-profit group that rented a kennel in Elkton for the past 3 ½ years using county government funds. But having a private contractor absolved the county government of having to pay for utilities, trash, veterinary medical and other costs that will now be fully borne by county taxpayers.
Bingham chafed at the $720,000 figure, telling the County Council that it was “quite low” in comparison with other area animal shelters’ government funding.
But County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) told Bingham that the Council might very well cut Moore’s figure to the Fiscal 2016 allocated amount– $660,000—instead of the $720,000 sought by Moore in her new Fiscal 2017 budget. “I think that would be catastrophic,” Bingham responded.
Welcome to Cecil County, Ms. Bingham.