Towns' animal control needs grow with season
Most Islanders think about the arrival of summer in terms of human visitors. For the Island's animal control and dog officers, however, it also means an influx of four-legged friends and a subsequent increase in frantic calls about their whereabouts as they wander around unfamiliar Vineyard territory.
For two of the towns, Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, knowing just who will be available to cover those calls is a work in progress. This week, as Tisbury took steps towards hiring a new animal control officer (ACO), Oak Bluffs found itself facing the same dilemma.
On Tuesday night, the Oak Bluffs selectmen announced that ACO Keith Laslovich had resigned. Mr. Laslovich, who has served the town for four years, said he would continue to cover emergencies for a while.
In the meantime, after conducting interviews for Tisbury's ACO this week, one candidate will be recommended to the selectmen at their meeting next Tuesday by Tisbury Town Administrator John Bugbee. The position has remained vacant for the past year, in the hopes that Sharon Rzemien would be able to return to the job after suffering a stroke last June.
In a phone interview Tuesday night, Mr. Laslovich said he had been asked by someone in Tisbury, whom he preferred not to name, to apply for the ACO position. As a resident of Tisbury, he said he wanted to work in his own town.
Last Friday during Mr. Laslovich's interview, he said he was told by Tisbury town officials that regardless of his experience and animal control training, he would not be paid more than a minimum starting wage. Unlike Oak Bluffs, the Tisbury ACO position is a union job.
"It's a 24-hour a day job that takes a lot more commitment than $15 an hour," Mr. Laslovich said. "So I told them no thanks." He said he planned to resign from his Oak Bluffs position no matter what, because he needs a change of pace and environment.
In the past few months, Mr. Laslovich has been helpful in providing coverage for Tisbury, which has been short-handed during Ms. Rzmenien's year-long absence. "We've been scrambling since the end of last June, and survived the summer, then the winter," said Tisbury assistant town administrator Aase Jones, who supervises the animal control department. "We thought Sharon would be coming back and were committed to helping her make that happen," Ms. Jones said.
Initially, the selectmen relied on emergency coverage provided by Joan Jenkinson, West Tisbury's animal control officer, from September through December. A temporary ACO hired in March left abruptly. Fortunately, Jamie Pience, a former animal control assistant who resigned last summer to care for her infant, agreed to come back part-time. She began covering weekends and holidays in April. For the past month, Mr. Laslovich has been covering emergency calls in Tisbury on weekdays and nights, as well as being on call in Oak Bluffs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Although Ms. Rzmenien's recovery progress continues, Ms. Jones said, "Sharon did a good job for us. She's going to have to do something else for the rest of her life, but she's moving on, and doing okay."
The Tisbury selectmen determined it was time to move forward with hiring a new ACO, recognizing they could not continue to ask for assistance from other towns indefinitely. Without a formal agreement between the towns, the animal control officers can only assist each other on an informal basis or under special circumstances.
As Barbara Prada, Edgartown's ACO, explained, "If I get injured responding to a call in another town, I'm not covered by insurance in that town. West Tisbury, Tisbury and Oak Bluffs have all switched back and forth, but you have to be careful."
However, Tisbury's reliance on Oak Bluffs and West Tisbury over the past year for animal control assistance raises the question of whether regionalizing services should be considered.
Although recent discussions between Tisbury and Oak Bluffs regarding a shared police chief arrangement ended, both towns have agreed to continue examining regionalization issues.
"Sharing an animal control officer can be talked about if we continue our conversations with Oak Bluffs," agreed Tristan Israel, Tisbury selectman chairman. "There are definitely issues, but on the other hand, it is not as controversial and complex as the police department."
Selectman Tom Pachico disagreed. "The animal control officers do reciprocate and help each other out, but it would be too difficult. If one person was out or on vacation, you'd have one person trying to cover both towns."
Although opinions about regionalization are divided among the animal control officers, the down-Island ones seemed willing to consider it.
Based on her experience over the past several months in Tisbury, Ms. Pience said, "It would be possible to share an animal control officer in Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. If Oak Bluffs had an assistant or two, we could combine the two towns."
In an interview last week, Mr. Laslovich said he would favor a county animal control center. "If we had one central location, we could have less employees covering the towns and less buildings to maintain."
Tisbury and Oak Bluffs handle their animal control departments differently. While Tisbury has a separate animal control department, Oak Bluffs does not. Mr. Laslovich falls under the supervision of the Oak Bluffs Police Department.
Because the Oak Bluffs ACO also serves as the animal health inspector, the job is a nonunion position. The Tisbury ACO position is a union job and requires many administrative tasks, such as reports, budgets, and overseeing part-time assistants.
After resigning Tuesday, Mr. Laslovich said, "I would love to see every town on the Island do something to make animal control more organized so the people who work in it can have lives." With no assistant, he was on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. On nights that his wife worked outside the home, he had to line up babysitters for his children, just in case he had to go out on a call.
"I always have to plan for the job and how it impacts my personal life," Mr. Laslovich said. "I don't hold any animosity against any of the towns. It's a very demanding job. I just think the position needs a little bit more respect and more money."
After working in Edgartown's animal control department for 23 years, Ms. Prada agreed that while the idea of regional animal control is good, the question is who will run it. "It's hard to find someone to cover for you, because animal control is not a 9 to 5 job. You would still have to have a couple of assistants helping on weekends," she said.
While the proximity of down-Island towns such as Oak Bluffs and Tisbury might lend itself to a shared arrangement, Ms. Jenkinson said, "I just don't think that will be a possibility for up-Island. West Tisbury and Chilmark have huge areas to cover, land-wise. I don't see how they could hire one person to do three towns."
The up-Island towns also differ in that Chris Murphy of Chilmark and Angela Waldron of Aquinnah are dog officers, not animal control officers. As such, they do not deal with livestock or wild animals.
Mr. Murphy said the Chilmark selectmen decided to forgo having a formal animal control department altogether. "When they asked me about being the dog officer, they said it could be a low-key job. They were right. In a little town, everybody knows everybody and everybody's dogs. You can usually fix the problems with a phone call," Mr. Murphy said.
Ms. Waldron said in her location, regionalization does not make sense. "We don't have stray dogs in Aquinnah, because I find them. If you don't have someone on hand to deal with a call, you'll end up with a lot of dogs all over the place. It's better to have people onsite, who can respond immediately and get a situation taken care of."
What the three up-Island dog and animal control officers would favor is a pound to call their own. The three down-Island towns each have one.
"I wish I had a pound up-Island," said Ms. Jenkinson. "Maybe the three up-Island towns could have one together that is centrally located."
West Tisbury does have an arrangement with Tisbury to use its pound. For temporarily housing local dogs, Ms. Jenkinson temporarily houses local dogs in a kennel at her home, as do Mr. Murphy and Ms. Waldron. They must transport strays to the MSPCA.
"Having a place for hurt and injured animals would be great," Ms. Waldron suggested.