More Funding and Staff Recommended for Grand Traverse Animal Control

The Grand Traverse County Animal Control Ad Hoc Committee held another meeting today concerning the funding and staffing of the Animal Control Division. Commissioners Cheryl Gore Follette, Dan Lathrop and Bob Johnson discussed options at the meeting with others in attendance.

Information was presented at the start of the meeting by Commissioner Cheryl Gore Follette that Sheriff Bensley did not have a desire to administer the Animal Control Division within the Sheriff’s Office so they would have to search for alternatives.

Commissioner Gore Follette continued to say that the goal of the meeting was to make a recommendation to the Administrator so that she could gather information and make a recommendation to the full Board at their next meeting on Wednesday, January 17th.

Animal Control Officer Deb Zerafa expressed her disappointment that the Sheriff was unwilling to run the Animal Control Division as her duties include enforcement of state laws and county ordinances. She went on to talk about uncomfortable situations with county residents in which her safety could have been in jeopardy. The commissioners learned that she does not carry a stun-gun, a baton, a gun or any kind of protection and they asked about the option of her being deputized. Zerafa also stated that she doesn’t have access to any criminal background about the person she is visiting, a situation that might change in about a year according to Captain Chris Clark who said that Dispatch is getting upgrades to their system and it would allow Zerafa to utilize one of their databases.

Health Officer Wendy Hirschenberger told the commission that before cuts were made, the Animal Control Division had two full time officers – and even three in the past. She said there isn’t enough staffing to run the division effectively as funding is not there to do what is necessary. Environmental Health Director Dan Thorell gave the commissioners some information about how only about 2% of the time is devoted to stray dogs and that a majority of  the time spent is responding to complaints, either in the office or in the field, including the phone calls and reports. The study was done June through November 2017 with one full time Animal Control Officer and approximately one half-time officer.

Sheriff Bensley reminded everyone about the history of how the animal control issue we currently have got to the point that it did, when commissioners eliminated the funding and two very experienced Animal Control Officers with no discussions with him or notice to the public about what was going to happen. He said he thought that the Animal Control Division ran pretty smoothly when Animal Control Officers Ed Hickey and Cindy Burkhardt were there and he thought that the decision to get rid of them was political and not financial as the county eventually ended up with a surplus. He stated several reasons why he was unwilling to run Animal Control including that it wasn’t a mandated service and that there was no funding assurances. He also said that he didn’t have operational knowledge to run an Animal Control Department and that all of the resources needed were already in the Health Department. He said that the Sheriff’s Office already has a full plate. He stated that staffing issues have already plagued his office and he did not know about any Animal Control Officers ready to go on the shelf at Walmart. He thinks that the current commissioners have the moral and financial support to fund animal control services and a new Administrator who supports it as well. Bensley said that when it gets funded, it will work well again within the Health Department. He also expressed his appreciation that the new Administrator was willing to sit down and talk with him about the issue.

Treasurer Heidi Scheppe explained that the Animal Control Division is currently on budget and that without any adding any indirect costs, they have a fund balance of about $20,000. With the licensing fees that they collect and the fund balance, that leaves about $156,000 that they would need to cover in order to fund the staffing that Health Director Wendy Hirschenberger requested.

Commissioner Gore Folette made a motion that the Ad Hoc committee recommend to the administrator that they fund the Animal Control Division in order to staff them with two full time animal control officers, an administrator and a part-time clerical person. She also asked Administrator Uppal to look into a new location for the Animal Control office. Her motion was seconded by Commissioner Lathrop. They voted and the motion passed 2 to 1 with Commissioner Johnson voting against it as he said that he had a hard time leaping from one officer to four.

The discussion of a millage was put off for now but remains an option in the future as more information is gathered and they decide on a long term solution for the funding issue.

Commissioner Uppal will bring her recommendation for the new Animal Control budget to the full Board of Commissioners at the meeting on Wednesday, January 17th.

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