Emotions ran high on Wednesday during a Commissioner’s Study Session regarding the status of animal control in Grand Traverse County. County Commissioner Cheryl Gore Follette gave an impassioned speech about why she requested the study session to be schedule when asked by Commissioner Dan Lathrop why they were having the meeting. She cited an increase in dog bites and the Animal Control Division not being able to deal with all of the issues the county has including abandoned animals. She added that ALL of the animals are being ignored after hours, on weekends and holidays because of the understaffing. She has seen pictures of abandoned and abused animals in the county and said, “if that doesn’t break your heart, shame on you.” She also stated that the animal control truck was a piece of crap and that the animal control budget is a joke.
Animal Control Officer Deb Zerafa was also emotional as she described trying to do what amounts to a 80+ a week job in only 25 hours (she is currently working 37.5 hours a week on a temporary basis). She often devotes personal time to the job as it isn’t something that you can just ignore when there is a crisis – and is in touch with the new Animal Control Specialist when she needs help, even off the clock. Zerafa said that the animals in the county don’t have a voice and that a good management team is needed to lead the division. She stated that laws are being violated on a minute to minute basis. Zerafa is often put in dangerous situations. She isn’t able to check for warrants or other background information on the locations she is going to – and isn’t allowed to carry a gun, taser, pepper spray or baton. The obvious solution is that she needs to be deputized by the Sheriff’s Office because what she is doing is a law enforcement arm of the county.
Most people in the county agree that the Animal Control Division should be under the Sheriff’s Office and not the Health Department so that it operates more smoothly. However, with the disrespect shown to Sheriff Bensley in the past and not offering funding to run the Animal Control Division, that makes the transition appear to be a current impossibility. Sheriff Bensley was in the audience at the Study Session and was asked to speak. He kept his comments short by saying, “My understanding is that some on this Board would like us to take an operation that is under-funded, under-staffed, under-managed and make a miracle out of it. That is not going to happen.”
About two dozen community members attending the meeting and spoke up about their concerns regarding animal control in the county. TV 7&4 and TV9&10 were also there to record the meeting.
Former Animal Control Officer, Ed Hickey, who was let go when the county cut the funding for the Animal Control Division at the end of 2015 (including both Animal Control Officers) was also at the meeting. Still very concerned about the animals in the county, he offered any assistance he could give that could help the commissioners solve the problem. He answered questions that the commissioners had regarding operations and the past history of the division. When he was asked when the Animal Control Division was ran optimally, he responded by saying, “before this Administrator (Menzel).” He explained how the job was about 25% law enforcement and the rest was mediation between neighbors. He believes that the Animal Control Division should be in the Sheriff’s Office and that more communication is needed between them and the Animal Control Division.
The Commissioners estimated that only about 22% of the dogs in the county are licensed and that more compliance is needed to help fund the Animal Control Division. They discussed charging fines for non-compliance, however Health Director Wendy Trute said she did not have the staff to implement licensing. Another issue that came up was the county’s inability to have pet owners pay for their licenses online due to old software.
A packet of information regarding the Animal Control Department was given ahead of time to the Commissioners by Health Director Wendy Trute with information compiled by her and ACO Deb Zerafa. It includes the type of complaints, the townships where the complaints are coming from, number of calls, mileage, budget information, photos of abused/neglected animals and more. This report can be downloaded here.
Jen Isbell of Pet Friends Magazine suggested that the commissioners form an Animal Control Advisory Committee to help them with their animal control issues but in the end it was decided that the commissioners would form an Ad-Hoc Committee that would consist of Cheryl Gore Follette, Dan Lathrop and Bob Johnson. An Ad-Hoc Committee is a committee of a few commissioners who gather information and make recommendations to the full Board of Commissioners on an issue. They are formed for a specific task or objective and dissolved after completion of the task or achievement of the objective. They will look into funding options and other issues concerning the Animal Control Division. They also said that they’d appreciate help from a “friends of animal control” group if one was to be formed in the county. There are a few animal lovers currently looking into the idea and what that kind of help a group like that would be interested in offering to the county.