In tonight’s Grand Traverse County Commissioners meeting, the fate of the Animal Control Division was decided by a narrow margin of 4-3 in favor of increasing the budget by $150,000 in order to fully staff the division with three animal control officers (one of them supervisor) and one part-time clerical person.
At the beginning of the meeting, it was announced that they received the resignation of Administrator Vicki Uppal. Uppal was tasked by the Animal Control Ad Hoc Committee to submit the recommendation for the increase in funding, an increase in staffing and recommending the move the Animal Control Division to the Keystone Road building where the former animal shelter used to be. She did this work before her resignation and Interim Administrator Jean Derenzy took her place at the meeting. Derenzy said she had gone on site to visit the location and found enough room for both Animal Control and the Commission on Aging to share the building.
Commissioners Bob Johnson, Ron Clous, Dan Lathrop and Sonny Wheelock all discussed their problems with supporting three full-time animal control officers but they seemed open to funding two officers. Commissioners Clous and Wheelock had a problem with the additional funding, citing the fact that animal control services not being mandated by the state. Also a concern was the recent loss of staff, including the administrator, and not knowing what direction they were going to go in the future.
During the meeting, Commissioner Cheryl Gore Follette talked about the significant number of emails she had received supporting the funding of the Animal Control Division and that the public had expressed that it was a priority to them ever since it had been eliminated. She explained that having only two animal control officers was doing nothing more than putting them in the position they were in five years ago but that since then there has been a population explosion. She said, “what we’re doing right now is like putting out brush fires with a fire extinguisher” and explained how the Animal Control Division doesn’t have the ability to be pro-active, educate the public and come up with programs to help pets. She said it was was no less important to care for the animals in the community than to care for the veterans and the elderly.
Commissioner Carol Crawford said that only having two officers would be setting them up for failure. She said if they’re going to do it, they needed to do it right. She brought up the fact that when the Animal Control Division was eliminated, it wasn’t apparent that it was happening. She said it was buried in the budget with no description about what happened and no explanation. She said the actual question of eliminating the division never came to the board as a stand-alone item. She said it would be a mistake to only have two officers when the recommendation, with input from many people, was based on the needs for the division.
Health Officer Wendy Hirchenberger said that a third person (director) was needed to update policies, work on contracts, work with legal on liability and safety issues and more. She said that her and Environmental Health Director Dan Thorell already don’t have enough time to adequately oversee the Animal Control Division and will have even less time in the future with two other departments being moved into the Health Department including soil erosion. Thorell explained how they don’t have the expertise in animal science and law enforcement to properly oversee animal control services as they are public health employees – which was what they were hired for and charged to do. He explained how Animal Control Officer Deb Zerafa adds an unseen benefit to the division by working with animal owners so that time doesn’t have to be taken up with the Sheriff’s Office or the courts. He said that even though animal control services aren’t mandated by the state, there are mandated penal codes that still have to be enforced and that Zerafa is tasked with that responsibility.
A unidentified person in the audience spoke up during public comment and told the commissioners she was shaking after listening to them. She explained how she should bill them for the numerous times she had taken care of people’s animals because animal control didn’t have the time (even with a great officer like Zerafa). She was offended that one of the commissioners acted like it was only about picking up stray dogs and explained that it was about finding a freezing dog outside in their dog house, learning about a teenager torturing and cutting off a cat’s head and much more. She said it was about neglect and abuse. She continued that it was about an Animal Control Division that didn’t have time to get a cat out of a tree or a cat out of a chimney that was stuck there for days. She told the commissioners that they were “way out of touch with reality” and that they weren’t the ones who woke up one day to find a neighbor had shot their dog. She told them to educate themselves and listen to the people out in the field. She asked for them not to let the animals suffer because their owners don’t take care of them. She also pointed out that the Commissioners not wanting to fully fund the Division were “men” but corrected herself with the word “people” after the comment was made.
In the end, after all the discussions, a vote was taken. Voting no were Lathrop, Johnson and Clous. Voting yes were Gore Follette, Mair, Crawford and in a surprise ending, Wheelock voted yes after putting his head in his hands, taking a deep breath and voting yes to fund the department as recommended.