Updated February 7, 2016
Grand Traverse County residents were outraged when they heard that the County Administrator Tom Menzel and the County Commissioners decided to eliminate the Health Department’s Animal Control Division and get rid of the two veteran Animal Control Officers. Since the announcement, the Commissioners and the County staff have mislead the public in press releases, interviews and emails to community members, telling them that Animal Control was simply “moved” and that most services would continue. They even made statements about how the Sheriff’s Office handled the majority of the calls anyway because they are always available and not just working eight hours a day like the two Animal Control Officers.
Over and over again, Menzel and Commissioners Maxbauer, Kroupa, Lathrop, Johnson and Crawford mislead the public and didn’t tell them that the Animal Control Officers are the ones who handled 97% of the animal-related calls. Menzel emailed a community member that “the new structure (moving to the Sheriff’s Office) serves the community much better.” He explained to another, “there will be little noticeable change other than an internal re-alignment from the Health Department to Sheriff Department.” Maxbauer said that the Sheriff’s Department “puts in more Animal Control hours than the (Animal Control) department each and every day of the year and has been doing so for decades…” Kroupa said it was “just a change of department heads and nothing else” – and that services were not only retained but improved. The other Commissioners sent out similar emails, making people believe that it was business as usual.
Those statements couldn’t be further from the truth as most of us in the animal rescue community already knew. Pet Friends Magazine did a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) on Grand Traverse County and received many documents and emails of the Commissioners and staff.
Here is what I found…In 2015, the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office received 255 calls on animal issues. As has been discussed before, the Sheriff’s Office specifically responds to barking dog complaints and deals with serious neglect and abuse issues that might include warrants to property – and dangerous dog calls.
In 2015, the Animal Control Officers in the Health Department’s Animal Control Division received and responded to 636 calls which is documented in the “Animal Control Call Response Report.” Of these calls, 82 were abuse/neglect/animal in distress; 230 were pertaining to dog or cat bites and quarantine issues (also confirmed in an email by Martha Thorell, Director of Disease Control and Prevention) and 242 calls were about loose dogs. There were 106 citations issued from January 1st through the end of November of 2015. The Animal Control Officers also did 20 kennel inspections to make sure the animals were being cared for properly according to local and state laws.
The Animal Control Officers did a LOT for our community. In addition to the Animal Control Officer duties listed in the County’s job descriptions (click here for info here) it is also documented in the Animal Control Call Response Report what the outcome was of each call, which included things like: chasing down loose dogs, fed dog, wrote citation, verbal warning, quarantined, took dogs to Humane Society, contact other counties, removed dogs, sent dogs to other county, sent bat to Lansing for testing, put dogs in back yard when captured, returned dog home, loose dog not found, etc.
As you can see, since January 1st, 2016, due to the elimination of the Animal Control Officers, there has been a SIGNIFICANT loss of Animal Control services to the County and what’s worse is that the County DID know it and chose to hide it from the residents of Grand Traverse County. Kristine Erickson, Director of the Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreations Dept., was appointed by the Board of Commissioners to be the media contact in August of 2015. While working on a press release about the elimination of the Health Department’s Animal Control Division, Erickson sent out wording of a press release to the following people asking for input and approval for her release: Commissioner Alisa Kroupa, Undersheriff Nate Alger, GT County Planning & Development Director John Sych, Administrator Tom Menzel, Commissioner Christine Maxbauer, Health Officer Wendy Trute and Deputy Civil Council Christopher Forsyth.
John Sych emailed her back, “Good job on a touchy subject. Not sure if it’s a good idea to include the number of investigations, complaints, etc. It may indicate that the services are substantial and should be preserved…”
Erickson’s response was, “I agree that we probably should not include the number of investigations, complaints, etc. It may indicate that the services are substantial and should be preserved and we aren’t sure how much will be absorbed by law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Office has no plan at this time… Bob Cooney (Prosecuting Attorney) may need to weigh in on what services must be continued by law and which things are local ordinance only.”
None of the Commissioners or anyone else on the email list objected to this plan of action. Additionally, there were discussions in the emails that I read about changing or eliminating the animal ordinance altogether.
When I contacted Erickson recently to ask her if she felt the County has been truthful with the public about the significance of the Animal Control services that were cut and if they had given everyone the relevant information to understand the situation, she said yes. I also emailed all the Commissioners the same question but none of them responded.
Because of her position and the fact that Menzel went on vacation shortly after announcing the budget cuts to the County, Erickson was responding to media inquiries about Animal Control – for him and also for others. Even though Trute and Buss were the ones running the Animal Control Division and I emailed them directly to get answers to questions, they would not respond. I was referred to Erickson – and now I understand why. It appears that everything had to be filtered through Erickson first. In an email to Environmental Director Tom Buss from Health Department Officer, Wendy Trute, Trute said, “Tom M (Menzel) does not know all that much about animal control so he would prefer that we take the calls, etc. I do want to make sure you, I and our Public Information Office all agree on how to handle this first…” The “handling” of the outrage of the public over the elimination of our Animal Control Officers and Division services seemed to be a high priority with the County as I saw in various emails in my FOIA. That included Menzel wishing there had been a communication strategy within the County.
Also proving that the services to be cut were known by the County was information in a document found in Commissioner Maxbauer’s emails called “Animal Control Talking Points” which spelled out some of the services that were going to be ending, including: animal welfare calls/consultation to public, no one to pick up loose or injured dogs, no response to assist law enforcement/emergency responders in cases of aggressive animals and dog kennel inspections.
As Pet Friends Magazine pointed out in the first article about the elimination of the Health Department’s Animal Control Division, the decision to get rid of the County’s Animal Control Officers and move the division was done fast and with little to no research about the ramifications to the taxpayers in the county or their pets. It was voted on by the Commissioners with no discussion at their budget meeting. After that, misinformation was spread by the County so that people would believe that the Sheriff’s Office would be handling most of the work that was previously done by the Animal Control Officers – and that it was no big deal because they were doing it anyway. Not true.
There has always been a large amount of support in Grand Traverse County for Animal Control Officers, Ed Hickey and Cindy Burkhardt, and the services they provided to the community. Unfortunately, that same respect did not reside with the decision-makers in our County Government. The Administrator and the County Commissioners have thrown Animal Control services into the wind and are hoping for the best without really understanding what the Animal Control Officers did and what went on in the Division.
Some of the Animal Control services are currently being “covered” by the general public. If you call Central Dispatch about a lost dog, they will refer you to a private citizen’s Facebook page to post a lost or found dog. Central Dispatch said they are not keeping a list of the lost and found dogs that people call about.
Some of the Animal Control services are being done by Cherryland Humane Society. In addition to boarding stray dogs under their contract with the County, they are doing the paperwork on intakes and fielding many calls from the community about county services that are not being done.
Animal rescue groups are also fielding a lot of calls from people who find lost dogs and can’t keep them – and don’t have transportation to the Humane Society. The rescue groups can’t take them because the dogs have to be kept by “animal control” for a certain amount of time according to State law. Who is there to pick up the dog? No one. Who is there to chase down the lost and injured dog running on the highway? No one. Most of the Animal Control Services that were previously done by our Animal Control Officers continue to go undone.
Menzel has commented several times about how most Animal Control Departments are ran by a Sheriff’s Office. That is true. But it’s also true that they have dedicated and trained Animal Control Officers to do the job – and not random police officers. And certainly not a combination of Township, City and County police officers as he seems to be proposing – with no central area to keep track of what’s going on. This doesn’t allow for communication between the different jurisdictions and there would be no trained Animal Control Officers available. Just because the State of Michigan doesn’t require a police officer to get Animal Control certification doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get the training in order to do the job competently and humanely.
Menzel sent me an email recently about his ideas of things he was considering for the future. Instead of having everything under one umbrella so there is consistency, accountability and expertise, it looks like his answer is spreading everything out. Examples he provided include: having the City of Traverse City enforce their existing animal control ordinance within their own jurisdiction and taking dogs to the Humane Society; giving the Humane Society funds for an individual to help with enforcement and leasing them the animal control trucks for $1 (who will pay for gas? insurance?) as well as trying to pass a resolution to allow them to sell licenses; continue to have the Sheriff’s Office implement the same services as in the past; and talking to Townships about the possibility of Township ordinances and enforcement (in the case of Garfield Township, they would be subsidizing the hiring of an additional Sheriff’s Deputy and would make it clear to the Sheriff that since they are paying for the new position, Garfield Township would want enforcement of the County or Township’s animal ordinance).
Does this sound confusing to you? That’s because it is. Who would you call with an animal control problem? It’s almost impossible to know. There would be about 20 different entities receiving calls for different things. And do dogs adhere to township, city and county borders? I don’t think so. Would all 20 entities do things the same way, be trained in animal control law and procedures – and use the same data reporting system? How can we have a competent Animal Control Service that’s spread out all over the place? We’d have townships doing things, the City doing things, the Sheriff’s Office doing things, the Humane Society doing things, the Health Department dealing with rabies and quarantines… and who will oversee it all?
Menzel’s email to me said that he wants a healthy community based on collaborative efforts of all interested parties. That’s a good idea – but it should have been done BEFORE the cut was made. A plan should have been proposed by the Health Department. They are the ones who know the most about what the Animal Control Officers did every day. They should have documented what services would need to be covered – and how. Now that the County has realized how important the Animal Control Division is to the community, they are coming up with about 20 Band-aids to fix the problem instead of a coherent plan.
So what should the County do? It’s a pretty easy solution actually. I’ve visited enough animal shelters, read enough animal control ordinances and went to enough animal welfare conferences to be able to give them some advice if they want to take it.
First of all, they need to form an Animal Control Advisory Committee to run Animal Control. This fits in with Menzel’s quote of wanting “collaborative efforts of all interested parties.” These committees exist all over the country as in this example. According to anonymous sources, the Health Department never wanted to run Animal Control in the first place. The Sheriff’s Office doesn’t appear want to take it on either. Let’s have some people in charge of Animal Control who actually care about what needs to be done. Members of the Committee can consist of County staff, interested Commissioners, City and Township elected officials, and community members such as veterinarians, groomers, business owners and taxpayers who can offer valuable input.
Secondly, write a milage to pay for two Animal Control Officers and other needed expenses for an Animal Control Department. Grand Traverse County was quick to come up with a millage proposal to pay for veteran services but I haven’t heard any of the Commissioners talk about doing a millage for Animal Control even though that seems like the obvious solution to their financial problems.
In a Committee structure, the members meet and make recommendations that go to the Commissioners for approval. Get this Committee going NOW to have real discussions to decide what to do in the interim and on a long-term basis. Get them busy writing language for a millage so it’s ready to go come election time.
What can YOU do as a taxpayer of Grand Traverse County and a concerned pet owner? Continue to email the Commissioners (respectfully) and ask that we have dedicated Animal Control Officers for our County and that they make it possible with the funding to cover the expense. If you agree with my idea of forming a Committee and having a millage written, let them know that too. If you have other ideas, tell them what they are. You can email all the Commissioners at once at this email address.
Lastly, do you want to to be a voice for the animals in our community and keep up with issues that involve owned and stray animals in Grand Traverse County? You can join the Facebook group “Grand Traverse Pet Advocates.”
This group was formed so that you can keep up-to-date with what’s going on with Grand Traverse Animal Control and other pet issues in the County. Only in existence for 48 hours, the group already has 174 members and more people are added every day.
Remember, this is YOUR county and the Commissioners are elected servants (who are all up for re-election in November). If Animal Control services are important to you, you have a right to voice your opinion on how your taxpayer money is spent.