Silence is Golden for Cecil County Council on Animal Control Costs; County Ignores Oversight Regs

May 1, 2017

A CECIL TIMES Special Report

The Cecil County Council didn’t seem to care that costs of animal control services rise in the proposed Fiscal 2018 budget, on top of costly fiscal add-ons a year ago to buy a county-owned shelter facility and staff it with county employees earning government-worker salaries, healthcare and pension benefits. The Council consensus appears to be that silence is golden, and as long as they are not being pestered with complaints, the costs are worth it.

At a Council budget hearing on 4/25/2017, Council members had virtually no questions for the director of the Animal Services agency, Abigail Bingham, and her boss, David Trolio, head of the Department of Community Services. Councilors Dan Schneckenburger (R-3) and Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2) suggested that, while the Council has heard recent complaints about “animals,” those objections haven’t involved dogs and cats. That was a humorous reference to the on-going “chicken wars,” involving a group of citizens opposed to organic chicken farms locating in the county and who attend most county meetings to voice objections to large poultry farms.

Nor did Council members ask detailed questions about the county owned and operated animal shelter and whether it complies with existing laws and regulations for public oversight of the facility.

The proposed budget for the upcoming Fiscal 2018 year, which begins 7/1/2017, calls for spending $745,340 for animal services, including $692,740 for general operations and $52,600 for utilities such as electricity and propane for heating at the now county-owned animal shelter facility. The current Fiscal 2017 operating budget allocation is $720,000.

The county government assumed total fiscal and operational responsibility for animal control and animal sheltering services on 7/1/2016, after past policies of contracting-out animal services to a non-profit organization. The operating costs of the county-run program are higher than a $650,000 bid offered last year by a non-profit group, the Cecil County SPCA. That proposal would also not have required the county to incur the additional $500,000 capital costs of purchasing, equipping and repairing its own facility last year.

Meanwhile, the county has not complied with its own law governing animal control that requires quarterly oversight meetings at which detailed information on animal services is presented to the public and a county-employee dominated “commission” that was established by former County Executive Tari Moore. Two citizens, one appointed by the Council and one appointed by the former county executive, are in the minority on the panel, which is dominated by county government employees whose jobs are controlled by the county executive. No meetings have been held but under the law, there should have been three meetings already held since the county took over animal services, with the next meeting held this month. (Moore’s revised panel dominated by her employees replaced an all-citizens oversight commission that had been a hotbed of criticism of county animal services.)

In addition, detailed quarterly reports of animal services operations, including incident reports and details of calls for animal control services that were required by law in the past, have not been provided by the new government operation. Only one limited report, covering the first quarter of calendar 2017, is posted on the county website. However, Cecil Times obtained two other earlier reports, with state-mandated minimal information on intake and disposition of animals, under a Public Information Act request. The documents show that the county-operated program generally transfers many if not most of animals it takes in to private “rescue” groups, including out-of-state operators, and the county-run shelter’s euthanasia of stray animals is minimal.

The Cecil County government-operated facility has drawn positive support on social media, especially from cat advocates who had been among the most vocal challengers of the most recent private contractor, A Buddy for Life, Inc., and the living conditions and care of cats at that group’s rented shelter in Elkton. The new county operation has emphasized cat intake and care, even to the point of driving a vanload of cats to a Vermont animal shelter to get them out of Cecil County and reassure local cat advocates of the agency’s feline dedication.

In the new proposed budget, there are no line items for repairs or maintenance expenses, although the county spent an undetailed amount last year to repair and redecorate the animal shelter facility in Chesapeake City after the county bought it from the Cecil County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Inc. (CCSPCA). Moore got a $500,000 budget amendment through the County Council in mid-2016 to purchase, renovate and equip the facility. (The purchase price for the nearly 12-acre property, with two buildings and a barn, was $395,000—or less than half of its property value as set by state property assessors.)

In the new Fiscal 2018 proposed budget, most of the operating costs are attributed to salaries and fringe benefits for the county employees who operate the shelter and its programs, accounting for $500,614 of the total, including state pension benefits and health insurance under the county government’s program. The shelter currently has 8 full-time employees and one part-time worker, Bingham told Cecil Times.

The shelter is open to the public for 32.5 hours a week. It is licensed by the state as an animal control facility, which allows it to euthanize animals and keep necessary chemicals on site. In addition, the facility holds a veterinary hospital license, although the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners online database did not list the shelter as licensed for surgical procedures as a full-service veterinary hospital. However, the executive director of the state Board, Vanessa Orlando, confirmed to Cecil Times that the shelter does have a veterinary hospital license.

That license requires designation of a “responsible veterinarian” who is on-site for 20 hours a week. Bingham said that Dr. Kerry Milliken, who is designated as the “responsible veterinarian” on the Cecil County license, is on-site for 20 hours a week. Milliken is also the full-time veterinary medical director employed by the Harford County animal shelter, operated under a partnership between that county’s government and the Harford Humane Society.

Bingham said the Cecil County shelter has agreements with a total of eight veterinarians on a rotating basis to provide medical services, including rabies shots and spay/neuter surgeries. The new budget includes a line item of $50,000 for veterinarian services.

Meanwhile, data reports of the county shelter’s operations as well as Internet adopt-a-pet postings show few dogs available for local adoptions, more cats coming into the shelter, and rapid transport of animals out of Cecil County. Transfers of animals to “rescues” means that the county shelter does not invest money in spay/neuter or medical care, but Bingham told Cecil Times that the county shelter requires contracts in which rescues promise that they will assume the costs of spay/neuter surgery.

For the first quarter of 2017, the shelter reported taking in a total of 177 dogs and 200 cats. For dogs, strays accounted for 117, and 59 dogs were surrendered by their owners while one dog was “transferred in” to the shelter from a “rescue” group. For cats, the numbers were 120 strays, 73 owner-surrendered, and 7 “transfers.” Bingham said the transfers into the shelter from rescues were animals that had been cared for on a “foster” basis, especially young kittens that need constant care until they are older and can handle a shelter environment.

During the same time frame, the Cecil County facility transferred a majority of the animals it took in to other rescue groups to get them out of the local shelter. For cats, 133 were transferred, while 75 cats were adopted directly from the shelter. Among dogs, 66 were returned to their owners. Of the remaining 111 dogs housed on site, 62 were transferred to rescue groups, and 43 were adopted from the shelter.

Some animals were euthanized for serious medical or behavior problems: 4 dogs and 19 cats. The shelter estimates that 35 percent of all cats coming into the shelter are “feral” or wild, unowned animals and 98 percent of the euthanized cats were feral.

Only the most recent quarterly report is posted on the county website. Cecil Times obtained two quarterly reports from 2016 via a Public Information Act request and those documents showed a similar pattern of large numbers of animals coming into the shelter transferred quickly out of Cecil County care into private “rescue” groups.

For example, in the fourth-quarter of 2016, 139 cats came into the shelter and 110 were transferred to rescues. For dogs, 140 came into the shelter, with 57 returned to their owners and 31 transferred to rescues. In the third quarter, 129 dogs came into the shelter and 36 were transferred to rescues, while for cats, 24 were transferred out of 283 taken in.

The reports do not list detailed information on other shelter operations that were required of private contractors in the past. But, under questions posed by Cecil Times under a Public Information Act request, other numbers were revealed.

For the time-frame of 7/1/2016 through 3/15/2017, the county operation handled 14 animal bite cases, 100 complaints of animal neglect or possible cruelty, 185 “enforcement” calls, 15 seizures of animals, 283 calls for stray animals, and 13 “wildlife” calls, along with 46 “transport” runs by county workers.

The county operation has two animal control officers, with one officer with certified training for many years since he worked for the CCSPCA, and a new officer who is scheduled to receive animal control formal training this month, according to Bingham.

Bingham said that she personally “volunteered” to drive a vanload of cats to a Montpelier, Vermont animal shelter and paid for the gas herself, only charging the county for highway tolls. She said she did not recall how many Cecil County shelter cats she transported, but the trip also included cats “owned” by the private Chesapeake Feline Association cat rescue group.

That may not be an option for the future, as the Vermont group recently posted online a new 2017 “strategic plan,” in which it pledged to a new commitment to “Vermont animals” and promised to downplay “transports” of out-of-state animals into its care.

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