Cecil County Council OK’s $140K for Animal Overspending, Questions Cat Overload; Another Ordinance Ordeal Looms?

May 9, 2019


The Cecil County Council has approved a $140,000 budget boost in the current fiscal year to cover overspending by the county’s Animal Services agency, despite questions about a massive intake of cats under a policy that is not consistent with county or state laws. And new calls for review of county animal law raise the specter of a re-play of a previous three-year bitter fight over the current law that featured fierce opposition by cat advocates to any regulations of owned cats or feral cat colonies.

On a unanimous 5-0 vote in Elkton on Tuesday (5/7/2019), the County Council approved the budget amendment to transfer funds in the current fiscal year, drawn from budget “reserve” fund accounts that are supposed to be off-limits to routine spending. The Animal Services overspending was signaled, at a lower level of nearly $67,000, in the county’s budget estimates report for the second quarter of the current Fiscal 2019 budget year in a report to the Council issued in early February. But that early warning was not flagged for the Council at the time and members indicated they felt blindsided by the new $140,000 budget amendment thrown at them a few weeks ago.

On top of the budget add-on for the current fiscal year, Animal Services is seeking a 41.7 percent increase in its operating budget for the proposed Fiscal 2020 budget, bringing those costs to $1,097,415. In addition, maintenance of the shelter is budgeted separately, in an overall county property management account, at $64,565, a 21.2 percent increase over the current budget year. The total request for Fiscal 2020 amounts to $1,161,980. Proportionately, the animal services spending boost is vastly the highest spending increase of any county department/agency in the new budget proposal and the agency is requesting more additional employees—2.5 full-time equivalent workers– than any other county program.

Recently, David Trolio, director of the county’s Department of Community Services that oversees the Animal Services operations, and Abigail Bingham, director of Animal Services, testified to the Council that the fiscal shortfalls were related to their new unilateral policy to take in all cats—despite the fact that cats are allowed to “roam free” under state law. (State-required reports on animal shelter intake show that the local government owned and operated shelter now takes in cats at a consistent two-to-one ratio over dogs, which by county law must be leashed and cannot “roam free.”)

While the animal shelter boosted its intake and care expenses for cats that it was not required by law to house, the county agency failed to perform its legally-mandated duties to inspect and license all kennels, animal “rescue” operations and animal boarding facilities in the county, as revealed recently in two CECIL TIMES Special Reports. [See previous CECIL TIMES report here: http://ceciltimes.com/2019/02/cecil-county-admits-animal-services-failed-to-inspect-multiple-kennels-cecil-times-report-confirmed / ]

Trolio and Bingham recently met privately with County Council President Bob Meffley (R-1) and Council Vice President Jackie Gregory (R-5) to plead their case for the $140,000 budget amendment. Meffley told the Council’s worksession on Tuesday that he raised questions about whether people were trying to ‘game’ the shelter by bringing in cats and litters of kittens from Delaware or other counties in Maryland to dump them for care and medical services at Cecil County taxpayer expense.

While the shelter asks for proof of local residency before taking in animals, Meffley wondered whether there might be a practice of people using local “friends” to dump cats at the Cecil County facility. And “they’re spaying and neutering everything they can catch,” he said, indicating that some people might be bringing animals to the shelter to get government-paid medical services for wild cats.

Meffley put his finger on what is a quiet undercurrent, on social media and in animal rescue circles, that feral cat trappers or “rescues” are now bringing such cats to the local shelter to get services that in the past they would have had to pay for, or seek donations for, themselves.

Gregory said that “it doesn’t make sense” that dog owners are fined if they allow their pets to wander freely while cat owners or trappers of wild cats can bring them to the shelter for government-paid care with no fiscal penalty. She also questioned the inconsistency of the shelter’s cat policies, when cats are allowed by law to “roam free.”

Recently, Trolio and county administrator Al Wein told the Council that Bingham and the Animal Services agency is working on potential changes to the county’s animal ordinance and Gregory indicated that a review of the law might be warranted in relation to cat policies due to the inconsistencies between the law and the current practices of the county shelter.

Life is short, too short, for county residents and lawmakers to re-live the torture of the more than three-year ordeal the last time the local animal law was re-written. Just enter the words “animal control” and “cats” on the CECIL TIMES “search” bar on the lower left side of our news page to re-live the agony of that ordeal.

At multiple public hearings and meetings, veterinarians and others urged regulation of “nuisance” cats and feral cat colonies as matters of pubic health and safety. But cat advocates fiercely challenged any language on cats, and one of the cat people’s staunchest leaders took control of the process– with the tacit support of a former County Council member. A broad-based, non-partisan task force disbanded when its own proposal was discarded and the cat crusaders staged their own coup of the process and wrote their own law, which was then rammed through the county legislative process.

Among the cat advocates’ fierce battles was a successful campaign against suggestions that feral cat colonies should be “mapped” so that county animal services could know where wild cat colonies cared for by feline fanciers were located, so that cat health and care could be monitored and steps taken to assume care if individual cat trappers could no longer feed or monitor the colonies.

Bingham and the current members of the County Council were not privy to the past cat wars, and if they think that re-opening that can of “Fancy Feast” is easy, they have a major headache in the making. The problem is not the law; it’s the unilateral policy adopted by the current operators of the program with no oversight or authorization by the government and taxpayers who are now being asked to pay for the costs of some individuals’ policy agenda.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the County Council also formally accepted a private donation of $138,426 from the estate of a woman who had adopted a cat from the shelter, in order to expand the current cat room and a laundry room at the Chesapeake City shelter. The gift is restricted to that purpose and cannot be used for other needs or operating expenses.

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