Animal control vote tabled by aldermen

By EVAN YOUNG

Staff Reporter

Crestwood aldermen say their upcoming decision on whether to shut down local animal control is purely financial — not personal or emotional.

The Board of Aldermen unanimously agreed Sept. 22 to table a vote on the city-recommended elimination of its animal control services until the board could get more information on Crestwood’s 2010 budget.

The proposed elimination is part of a five-year plan approved by the board earlier this year which aims to reduce Crestwood’s annual expenditures by more than $2 million.

If aldermen decide to shutter local animal control, the city would receive services through St. Louis County at no additional cost. However, opponents believe the county’s operation is no substitute for local animal control.

“You do in fact get what you pay for,” said resident Mary Wheat, who represents “Friends of Animal Control and Rescue,” a new organization that hopes to provide financial and volunteer support to Crestwood animal control.

The group, which is waiting on 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service, eventually would fund-raise and seek grants to help care for the animal shelter in Whitecliff Park and its inhabitants, she said.

Animal control supporters also have presented aldermen with a petition containing 718 signatures, representing all four wards, in favor of keeping services local.

“The signers on the petition know that the bottom line of dollars and cents don’t always need to dictate what’s right and that the non-personal ‘It’s business’ rationalization doesn’t apply,” Wheat told the board Sept. 22. “Our community runs on money and the budget is business and it’s necessary. But this community is made up of people who are overwhelmingly animal lovers, and that is personal.

“The 718 signatures speak louder than I ever could. Crestwood citizens don’t want to lose animal control. On this vote, it is both appropriate and prudent to go personal and give business the backseat.”

Animal control supporters spoke at length last week about maintaining local services, and board members said they were impressed by the turnout and enthusiasm. However, Ward 2 Aldermen Jeff Schlink and Chris Pickel and Ward 4 Alderman John Foote also said they had received calls and e-mails from many residents who wanted the service eliminated.

Before voting to table the issue, some board members said they desired assurances that retaining local animal control wouldn’t result in cuts to fire, police and other city services, as well as merit increases and benefits for city employees.

Schlink said he wasn’t sure if he could support local animal control when it appeared the city was less “excited” about retaining public safety positions.

As part of the city’s five-year plan, City Administrator Jim Eckrich said six fire and police positions were to be eliminated through attrition. So far, three of those positions have been eliminated, he said.

Eckrich said the three remaining positions — along with, per city code, the animal control officer — are included in the 2010 budget draft, which was scheduled to go to the city’s Ways and Means Committee last Friday.

Eckrich told aldermen they would need to decide on either keeping or eliminating animal control by the first board meeting in November.

Foote, who is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said “cold, hard cash” — and not emotion — would drive the group’s decisions.

“Personally I think it’s a great service, but — and here’s the ‘but’ — Crestwood received the major portion of its budgets from where? Simple answer — sales taxes. The mall. Every time this city went to finance something, we taxed shoppers,” said Foote, referencing the city’s 2002 construction of the aquatic center. “Ladies and gentlemen, the shoppers are gone … We don’t have that money stream that used to be there. Is it any wonder this is up for discussion? …

“There has to be some realism here. It isn’t pleasant … Any decisions I make on ways and means are going to be made simply because we can either afford it or we can’t — not emotional, it’s going to be on the facts,” Foote added.

Mayor Roy Robinson, who supports maintaining the city’s animal control, said the county merely provides a “pickup” service for stray pets and doesn’t respond to calls about wild animals — a significant problem for Crestwood given its proximity to Grant’s Farm, he added.

Robinson believes eliminating animal control won’t save the city much money and likely would create a public safety concern. He said Crestwood instead should consider eventually expanding animal control by hiring at least one park ranger to help with providing service.

“Whether we go forward with it or reduce it, it’ll make no difference to the city whether we meet budget or whether we have a certain amount of funds available,” Robinson said. “We’re not destitute. We’re able to pay our bills, and we have money in reserves.”

The mayor also restated comments he made at a recent town-hall meeting about other communities that use the county’s service.

While Eckrich has stated that none of Crestwood’s neighboring cities have their own animal control, Robinson said Sept. 10 that Kirkwood and Webster Groves authorities shoot stray animals “they can’t handle.”

“When they pick up an animal, and it’s got a problem and they can’t handle it or whatever, they shoot it,” Robinson said at the town hall meeting. “I mean, you don’t hear anything about this, but it’s done. There’s a report made, and they shoot the animal. And that’s how they take care of your pets that get out.

“And it’s all perfectly legal, because they make a report, and it says (the animal was) shot by a city-owned weapon, and that ends the deal with the pet. Now, most of us don’t want our pets to be shot in that manner unless they are attacking people, or the police officers feel threatened, I have no problem with that. But to get rid of animals with that method doesn’t sit well with me.”

Subsequently contacted by the Call, police officials in both Kirkwood and Webster Groves clarified that officers would shoot an animal only if it were dangerous and all other efforts to control it had failed.

But Robinson insisted last week that his remarks were accurate.

“I’m absolutely correct on that, no matter what anybody says in the paper or otherwise,” he said. “That was a staff study done here by our people in the city, and it is the gospel. There is nothing that was said falsely in that meeting.”

Crestwood once employed two park rangers, one full-time and the other half-time, to assist its animal control officer. However, those positions were eliminated in late 2005.

As a result, Crestwood animal control’s operations were cut from seven to five days a week. City police provide animal control services after-hours and on the weekends, while Animal Control Officer Suzie Sutton remains on-call for emergencies. Volunteers also work at the Whitecliff Park shelter on the weekends, tending to animals and cleaning the facility.

During regular business hours, Sutton picks up stray animals, rescues injured or ill animals, helps residents resolve animal-related conflicts, enforces animal related ordinances and addresses wildlife issues and concerns, among many other duties, Director of Public Works Dzenana Mruckovski wrote in a July memo to Eckrich.

Sutton is paid roughly $49,000 in salary and benefits.

In an analysis of Crestwood animal control, the Public Works Department concluded that, should aldermen decide to keep animal control local, the administration would need to adjust the city’s 2010 budget to include a few recommended expenses:

• $25,000 to $30,000 for renovations to the Whitecliff Park animal shelter, including roof replacement, exterior siding replacement, exterior decking/fence replacement and “miscellaneous interior renovations”

• $30,000 for a new animal control vehicle to replace a 1998 Ford Explorer with roughly 87,000 miles

• $21,000 to hire a part-time park ranger to work roughly 20 hours a week and assist Sutton with her daily duties, “especially when it comes to off-hours and weekend work that is currently performed by our police department”

But the city also would have some adjusting to do if it ceased local animal control, Mruckovski stated. In addition to repealing Crestwood’s animal control code and adopting the county’s rules, the city would have to vacate the Whitecliff Park shelter because the county doesn’t have the means to “manage another facility,” she wrote.

Currently, stray animals picked up in Crestwood are taken to the Whitecliff shelter and, if unclaimed after seven days, are then either put up for adoption or transferred to county animal control, the Humane Society or the Animal Protective Association, according to the city’s animal control code.

With the county’s service, strays are taken to a shelter in Ladue if they’re wearing owner tags or to a shelter in Florissant if they aren’t.