Town to send shelter contract to nonprofit animal group

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Riverhead Town's animal control building on Youngs Avenue.

Riverhead Town could be one step closer to privatizing its municipal animal shelter.

The town on Monday sent a draft contract to North Fork Animal Welfare League — the non-profit organization that runs Southold Town’s shelter — that would allow them to run Riverhead’s shelter as well, said Councilman Jim Wooten, Town Board liaison to the shelter.

Riverhead’s animal shelter has been a source of controversy for years, and Town Board members have embraced the idea of letting a private organization run it.

They just have to find that organization, and NFAWL, which was formed in 1963 and has been running Southold’s shelter since 1980, has gotten high marks from Riverhead town officials and animal activists.

“They are much better equipped than us, they know the issues and they have what it takes to run the shelter,” Mr. Wooten said at Monday’s meeting of the town’s animal shelter advisory committee. The Southold group also has a large volunteer base, he added.

Mr. Wooten said he’s hoping to complete the deal by the end of the year so that NFAWL can take over Jan. 1.

“I am praying for North Fork Animal Welfare League to take over,” said Noreen LeCann, chair of Riverhead’s shelter advisory committee.

She said only 13 volunteers have signed up to walk dogs at Riverhead’s shelter and only “a handful” actually show up.

And advisory committee members said that, because of union regulations, the only thing volunteers are allowed to do at the shelter is walk dogs.

There are currently 33 dogs in the shelter now, according to town police Chief David Hegermiller, whose department runs the shelter.

The NFAWL contract, called a professional services agreement, would be for more than $200,000, although Mr. Wooten declined to give an exact figure due to pending negotiations. The town spent $242,813 on the animal shelter in 2010.

If the shelter is turned over to a private organization, its budget would be increased through donations, according to a press release issued by Mr. Wooten last year. The Southold shelter was financed through $197,309 from the town and $179,000 from NFAWL donors in 2010, according to that contract.

“I can tell you it mirrors pretty much what Southold has with them,” Mr. Wooten said of the draft contract.

Mr. Wooten said there was some concern about whether NFAWL personnel would be able to write tickets, as town animal control officers now do, but he said that’s not a major concern of his.

“That’s secondary to creating a better environment for the dogs,” he said. In Southold, NFAWL runs the animal control function as well as the shelter. Riverhead currently has one animal control officer and one kennel attendant. Both are unionized positions.

If a nonprofit were to take over Riverhead’s shelter, it also would take over the responsibility for setting shelter policies, officials said.

The issue of euthanasia has always been a controversy in Riverhead, as in other municipalities that run dog shelters, and one that would no longer be a town decision if a nonprofit organization ran the shelter.

Gillian Pultz, North Fork Animal Welfare League executive director, declined comment when reached by phone.

Mr. Wooten said the town would not be issuing a request for proposals for the contract, as it has done in the past. In 2010, the town issued two RFPs to run the shelter, one in spring and one in July. But the town only received one response each time, and both were from the Riverhead Shelter Volunteer Program, or RSVP, a group that has clashed with the town on animal shelter issues in the past. Mr. Wooten had said at that time it was town policy to reject single-bid proposals.

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