By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
INDEX – It all began with a helpful conversation, and erupted while the SQSPCA was doing what it does best: saving Zoe, who chewed off her leg to stop the pain of a tumor.
The spark: one word, “unilateral.” The issue: Is Otsego County funding the shelter to minimum standards?
Richard Sternberg, a Susquehanna SPCA supporter, Cooperstown village trustee, retired surgeon and MIT graduate, stopped by the animal shelter on Route 28 for a conversation with SQSPCA Executive Director Stacie Haynes.
Sternberg’s “a master mathematician,” said Haynes. “He helped me calculate the actual cost.”
Applying “cost accounting” to the shelter’s expenses, Sternberg determined some $70,000 of the shelter’s $719,499.01 budget in 2018 had been spent responding to requests for assistance from county government, primarily from sheriff’s department and through calls fielded by 911.
By determining what’s spent where, cost accounting helps managers operate companies or organizations more efficiently.
“I never had these numbers,” said Haynes. “I could not believe how much it was.”
Sternberg shared his findings with the county Board of Representatives Tuesday, Nov. 26, at the public hearing on its $120 million proposed budget for 2020, and said the SQSPCA planned to “unilaterally” impose a fee schedule as of Jan. 1.
Haynes praised Sternberg’s efforts to help the shelter, as did board chair Gaylord Dillingham. But, he said, “It came across as somewhat adversarial.” Haynes is the SQSPCA’s contact with the county board, and will continue to be, he said.
Sternberg didn’t return a call or a text placed to get his perspective.
Before the cost-accounting exercise, Haynes said she assessed the sheriff’s department a $40 flat fee.
But, she added, the county board has put $5,000 a year for the past few years in the sheriff’s budget for shelter services. Now, with Sternberg’s financial data, she can assess the true costs.
In an interview, Sheriff Richard J. Devlin Jr., who serves with Haynes on PETS, the county’s recently formed animal-welfare task force, said he met with her in recent days, and accepts “she has not charged us in cases where she probably should have.”
Moving forward, he said, he expects the SQSPCA will present an itemized bill reflecting the true costs of its services. The sheriff’s department will then pay the bills until the $5,000 runs out, then will ask the county board’s Public Safety & Legal Affairs Committee for an additional, non-budgeted “emergency” allocation.
The total amount, averaging the last three years, could be as low as $40,000 a year, said Haynes. The $70,000 reflected two big 2018 cases – 103 animals found deserted on a Garrattsville farm in April, and 56 Lhasa Apsos surrendered by a Milford woman in November – as well as a heightened public awareness of the shelter’s services that resulted.
“The welfare of animals is both our priorities,” said Devlin.
County Board chair David Bliss, R-Cooperstown, agreed “the board wants to take care of its responsibilities,” but he said there are complications.
For one, the state Comptroller’s Office frowns on using the “emergency” definition repeatedly for the same expense over the course of a budget year.
And if the county board decides it needs to contract services to handle abused or abandoned animals that are seized – or dangerous ones – it would have to go out to bid, and other shelters or veterinarians might win the contract.
In some instances, said Bliss, a former longtime Town of Middlefield supervisor, towns, which are required to appoint animal control officers, might set up less-costly temporary shelters of their own.
(Bliss said an article in last week’s newspaper on the budget hearing misreported his intent: He didn’t decline to talk to Sternberg, but offered to meet with him after the hearing to discuss the issue.)
For her part, Haynes said the SQSPCA, which is on track to raise more than $3 million in its “Shelter Us” capital campaign for a state-of-the-art animal shelter in Index, needs more operating revenue to cover the services it provides day-to-day.
Delaware County allocates $88,000 a year to help support its two shelters, and Schoharie allocates $75,000, she said. The SQSPCA has been asking this county board for $40,000.
In her effort to obtain funding, Haynes said, she’s been directed to four different county board committees, so jurisdiction is unclear. “The county always says, ‘This is a town issue’,” she continued. “This is not a town issue.”
There are two related provisions in the state’s Agricultural & Markets Law, the governing statute, she said.
Article 26 prohibits town animal control officers from handling cruelty cases. Article 7 requires police departments to do so; sometimes, state police or local police departments respond, but mostly it’s the county Sheriff’s Department or referrals directly to the shelter from the county’s 911 Center.
“County 911 will call me, after hours: ‘We have a deputy at x location, and we need to seize two dogs and three cats.’ The staff comes in on overtime. There’s mileage to round them up,” Haynes said. “We bring them back to the shelter, and we hold them” until the legal process involving seized animals runs its course.
Still, Haynes and her staff love animals, and that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to hard-nose bargaining.
“We have a moral obligation to do what we do,” said Haynes. “We’re never going to stop doing what we’re doing.”