No money, no animal control: Oak Bluffs moves to find funding

A budget crisis at town hall left Oak Bluffs without animal control services this year. — File photo by Mae Deary

Oak Bluffs officials say they are confident they can reach a regional agreement with the town of Tisbury to provide animal control, a service that was sharply reduced and then eliminated over the past two years.

The elimination of animal control service has put a strain on the police department and generated dozens of sharp complaints from town residents.

The town has $16,000 targeted for animal control services. That money is expected to come from money already appropriated for salaries in the police department budget. A delay in replacing a retiring police officer leaves money unspent in the salary account.

“Clearly it’s an area that we need to support the public need,” selectman Kathy Burton, chairman of the board of selectmen, said. “We’re in the process of working out a mutual arrangement with Tisbury.”

Voters rejected an option to fund animal control through the police department last May, when the town asked for $24,000 in a Proposition 2.5 override article. That money was intended to pay special police officers to respond to emergency animal control calls, as they had done the previous year.

Regional response

Officials from the two towns met over the summer, and twice in recent weeks to discuss joint animal control services, but no detailed plan has emerged. The two towns have talked about hiring an assistant to Tisbury’s full-time animal control officer (ACO) Laurie Clements. The assistant would spend some time answering Tisbury calls, and some in Oak Bluffs, but there is no agreement on how to split the officer’s time, or the salary. Officials have also talked about dividing costs to run one kennel for the two towns.

“I’m confident,” selectman Mike Santoro said. “Tisbury really wants to work with us on that. They offered way back in the summer. I’m confident they’ll come to an agreement. In this financial climate, it’s something people are finding makes sense, and should happen.”

Opposition has surfaced from Ms. Clements. Tisbury has already appropriated money for an assistant to Ms. Clements, but the position is vacant. Ms. Clements earns about $10,000 in overtime pay from the account.

“It would take away $10,000 a year from me,” Ms. Clements said when the issue came up at the October 4 Tisbury selectmen’s meeting. “I don’t need or want an assistant.”

In the past, efforts to regionalize town services have faltered when negotiations get down to the details of staffing and funding, but there is a clear consensus among selectmen in both towns to move forward.

“It seems like a wonderful opportunity for regionalization,” Ms. Burton of Oak Bluffs said. “It makes a great deal of sense. I have an earnest desire, and I believe the board does, and the interim town administrator, to solve this problem.”

Interim administrator Bob Whritenour said working with Tisbury makes financial sense.

“I think it would be a huge value-add to work with an established program,” Mr. Whritenour told selectmen following his initial discussion with Tisbury officials earlier this month. “It looks like a real value for the community.”

No control

Following the departure of animal control officer Heather Jaglowski in 2009, the police department handled limited animal control services with special police officers on call for emergencies. The services were funded through an appropriation approved by voters at the 2010 annual town meeting.

The town’s financial crisis over the past three years had a direct effect on the animal control issue. Selectmen did not hire a new animal control officer, and funds for animal control services were not included in the current year budget proposed by selectmen and approved by voters at the annual town meeting. Voters later rejected a $254,361 Proposition 2.5 override question that included, among many other appropriations, $24,000 for animal control services by a wide margin.

Currently the town’s animal pound is not staffed, and there is no appropriation for the town to pay for catching, transporting, or caring for loose animals.

Police still respond to anything criminal in nature, including animal cruelty, vicious dogs, animal bites, or noise complaints. But police officers will not respond to reports of loose or lost pets, restrained dogs, or injured animals.

Patchwork solution

That policy has caused some friction among police, selectmen, and the public.

“The police department is available for animal emergencies,” Ms. Burton said. “You do the best you can to try to deal with the phone call, and it isn’t always perceived that way.”

A September 28 letter to the editor of The Times by Cathy Peters of Oak Bluffs outlined her complaints about requesting a response from the police department. The letter generated more than 40 responses in the on-line comments forum.

“It is only a matter of time before there is a lawsuit against the town,” wrote one reader. “They think they can’t afford an ACO? Wait until they get slammed with a 6-figure lawsuit!! Hiring an animal control officer will feel like short money!”

Police are frustrated with the absence of animal control services. Sergeant Mike Marchand said the Oak Bluffs police department gets three or four calls per week that would be handled by an animal control officer, if that position was filled. He said that when selectmen did not fund animal control services in the budget they recommended to town meeting, and voters then turned down funding in the Prop. 2.5 ballot, it had unforeseen consequences.

“I think there’s a lack of understanding,” Sgt. Marchand said. “I don’t know if the citizenry understood what that meant. Of course anything that is emergency related we still continue to handle, anything that is a threat to the public. But some of the more simple calls, ‘Mrs. Smith’s dog got loose,’ we don’t have the officers to respond. Unfortunately, now Mrs. Smith has to go catch her dog.”

Often, when pets are involved, there is a lot of emotion, and when people turn to police to solve a problem, they do not want to hear about the intricacies of town budget politics.

“Believe me, there are times when we go above and beyond what we’re obligated to do,” Sgt. Marchand said. “We’re getting thank-you letters. We’re doing the best we can, but we can’t handle those types of calls all the time. This is a sensitive issue. We’re hoping it does get straightened out. It’s a short amount of money.

Helping the hurt

Among the primary responsibilities of an animal control officer is to respond to injured animals. With no animal control officer, that has been one of the most contentious issues for Oak Bluffs police. Police chief Erik Blake told selectmen earlier this year that liability and cost issues prevent officers from responding to calls for a dog or a cat hit by a car, unless it is a public safety issue.

If the animal’s owner is known, the owner would be responsible for emergency veterinary care, but Chief Blake said in a case where the pet’s owner is unknown, the town would be liable for the bill.

“When a dog gets hit by a car, whoever brings the dog to the vet is responsible for the bill,” Mr. Blake told selectmen at a July 19 meeting. He said he called Island veterinarians, but none would agree to provide emergency service at no cost.

The issue resurfaced when Island police departments agreed to establish a K-9 unit capable of sniffing out illegal narcotics and searching for people who are lost. Though the K-9 unit would be available for all Island towns, it would be based in Oak Bluffs, on patrol with Officer Jeff Trudell.

Chief Blake said that all supplies, services, and training for the K-9 unit, including routine veterinarian care, are donated at no cost to taxpayers.

“With the new police dog, they were able to get free vet service,” selectman Santoro said. “It’s unfortunate we couldn’t find free vet service for injured animals you find on the side of the road. That’s not sitting well with people. That’s why we’re putting a full court press on the animal control issue.”