Panel will research options for animal-control program

Put animal control on ballot, Crestwood mayor suggests

By EVAN YOUNG

An ad-hoc committee of Crestwood aldermen will research various options for the city’s 30-year-old animal control program and will recommend next spring whether to keep it going.

Mayor Roy Robinson formed the committee during last week’s budget work session after breaking a 4-4 tie to defeat Ward 3 Alderman Jerry Miguel’s motion to recommend removing the animal control officer position from the city’s 2010 budget draft.

Along with Miguel, Ward 1 Alderman Darryl Wallach, Ward 2 Alderman Jeff Schlink and Ward 3 Alderman Paul Duchild voted in favor of removing the $51,400 a year position from the budget, which city staff recommended doing earlier this year as part of a five-year plan to reduce annual expenses.

“What troubles me really is that this has been around this board since February or this past year …,” Miguel said. “And now we’re down to the 11th hour and we need to make a decision regarding the budget.”

However, Robinson instructed the ad-hoc committee to research the issue and report back by the end of the first quarter of 2010, which is March 31. The group is comprised of Wallach, Schlink, Ward 1 Alderman Mimi Duncan and Ward 4 Alderman Deborah Beezley.

In recommending the elimination of the animal-control officer position, City Administrator Jim Eckrich has stated Crestwood can obtain animal control services through St. Louis County at no additional cost, which is what most neighboring communities already do. But supporters of Crestwood’s program contend the county’s service pales in comparison to the work Animal Control Officer Suzie Sutton does.

After doing her own research on the issue, Beezley said she believes the city — but not its residents — would save money if local animal control is eliminated.

“This is not a free activity,” Beezley said of switching to the county’s program. “This is going to be a cost to our residents. What we’re doing is we’re transferring what we’re paying in the city to our residents, because the county really will not be picking up animals … There’s really very little in life that’s totally free, and sending this over to the county I think is only transferring an issue to our residents, and I have a serious concern about that.”

Duncan said she visited the county’s Ladue and Florissant animal shelters, which are scheduled to merge into one location next year. She said a county animal-control officer confirmed that the scope of the county’s service doesn’t include wildlife-related calls.

“It’s just not an apples-to-apples comparison,” Duncan said of the two programs.

Crestwood animal control’s hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

City police provide animal control services after-hours and on the weekends, while Sutton remains on-call for emergencies. Volunteers also work at the animal shelter in Whitecliff Park on the weekends, tending to animals and cleaning the facility.

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

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 stated in a July memo to Eckrich, who had asked public works staff to analyze animal control operations in the city.

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.

The county, meanwhile, employs 15 animal-control officers who serve roughly 875,000 to 900,000 residents, according to information provided to Crestwood officials by the county Department of Health.

However, two of those positions currently are vacant.

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

Sutton’s $51,400 in salary and benefits are included in the 2010 budget draft because it’s required by city code, Eckrich said.

Some $14,000 also is budgeted for roof and siding repairs at the Whitecliff Park shelter — work that Eckrich said would have to be done regardless of what happens to the animal control program, because the building is used for other park operations.

Public works officials also have recommended several more thousands of dollars in improvements to the program, such as $30,000 for vehicle replacement and $21,000 to rehire a part-time park ranger.

Those items, however, are not included in the 2010 budget draft.

Some Crestwood animal-control supporters have formed the group “Friends of Animal Control and Rescue,” which they say eventually would seek local and federal funding to help maintain local animal control. In September, supporters presented the board with a petition containing signatures of more than 700 residents who support the local animal-control program.

“This group has developed a 501(3)(c), which they say they have,” Beezley said. “There has to be some out-of-the-box kind of fundraising things they can do to additionally help bring in dollars, and I’m sure they would willingly help support some of these efforts.”

Donations would go into Crestwood’s “Friends of Animals” fund, a separate account that currently contains roughly $14,000. If the program were dissolved, those funds would be given to an animal-related organization, Eckrich said.

Some aldermen indicated they would support an alternative, more cost-effective version of Crestwood’s animal control program. Options aldermen suggested included increasing fees such as those for pet tags; enlisting volunteers, whom Sutton could train to respond to animal control calls; expanding the program into nearby municipalities, which in turn would help fund it; and retaining a part-time local program that responds only to wildlife-related calls.

Robinson, who said he would “seriously consider vetoing” an ordinance eliminating the program, suggested the matter be put to a vote of the people. He predicted the measure would “win overwhelmingly.”

“I get calls all the time. People are upset about this, and they would’ve been here tonight but they didn’t know anybody was going to vote on anything …,” he said of Miguel’s earlier motion. “If there’s going to be additional costs to this community, in addition to what we have now, I want the people to vote on whether or not they want to go to that expense. This is not something that should be arbitrarily decided by me or anybody else.”