Two years ago, Sag Harbor residents Paul and Myrna Davis adopted a golden retriever border collie mix from the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons. Before it found its way to ARF, however, the pooch was originally taken to the Southampton Town Animal Shelter, after it was found tethered to a post in Riverhead.
“If she hadn’t been found and [placed] at the town shelter, I don’t know what would have happened to her,” said Myrna of her five-year-old dog named Princess Toko. This week, Davis was one of nearly 450 people who signed a recent petition to help keep the town animal shelter open.
Almost two weeks ago, the Southampton Town Board revealed a preliminary 2010 budget with no money allocated for the shelter. For months, the town board has been mulling over privatization of the service in order to cut costs. The town spends nearly $1 million annually to operate and maintain the shelter. According to the petition, generated by local veterinarians, activists and members of the town’s Animal Shelter Advisory Committee, the shelter currently houses and cares for the medical needs of around 150 cats and 40 dogs. By law, the town is only required to maintain an animal control division. An animal shelter isn’t a mandated town service.
“That government area can be delivered by the private sector,” town supervisor Linda Kabot elaborated during an interview. “The first step [for the town] is to get out of the business. There can be amendments made to this budget for a [financial] partnership with an outside group.”
The Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation, a not-for-profit organization backed by Southampton philanthropist and avid animal lover Susan Allen, has stepped forth with a proposal which appears to be one of the few viable options for keeping the shelter open. The foundation would comply with criteria already established by the town in a request for proposals, or “RFP,” released over a month ago but it has also made a few recommendations to create cost efficiencies and increase quality.
A veterinary technician, the equivalent to a nurse for animals, would be reinstated to check on the cats and dogs and prep them for surgery. The foundation also hopes to team up with Stony Brook Southampton for educational programs at the university. The shelter’s hours would be extended and the facility’s store would be reopened. Last, but not least, the foundation may explore installing solar technology to power the shelter’s facilities and reduce energy expenses. According to the proposal, the foundation encourages all of the current animal shelter employees to apply for their current positions, and the foundation has said it will maintain the same level of benefits.
The foundation does request a financial commitment of $500,000 per year from the town over the duration of the three year contract. In addition, Don Bambrick, the current Animal Shelter and Animal Control Division Supervisor, will work with the shelter, but remain a town employee. Town councilwoman Anna Throne-Holst noted that Bambrick’s salary and benefits costs the town roughly $150,000 per year. Allen will meet with Throne-Holst, Kabot and the town attorney’s today to discuss and negotiate the foundation’s proposal. Throne-Holst believed the town may ask to contribute far less upfront, but said the town’s contribution “could grow as the [town's] revenue starts to recover.”
Over the years, Allen has made several generous donations to the shelter, including over $1 million in 1999 when the shelter was first built. She is also the principal financial backer of the foundation. The foundation’s proposal said the organization has already received nearly $1.5 million in promised funding. This funding will be allocated to the foundation once the town approves the contract.
Hundreds of local residents have signed a petition urging the town to accept the foundation’s offer. As of press time, the final tally on the “Save the Southampton Animal Shelter” petition was 445 signatures.
“There is strong enough support from the community at large to guarantee support for a privatization solution in order to maintain the shelter,” wrote several residents and veterinarians in the opening letter of the petition. “It is hoped that the town, working directly with Susan Allen, can come to an agreement that results in increased welfare for the animals.”
Allen declined to be interviewed, but her assistant Susan Kelly wrote in an email that Allen’s “only interest is for the well being of the animals.” Kelly went on to write, “In these difficult economic times, more people than ever are surrendering their animals, or worse, abandoning them.”
Sag Harbor veterinarian Dr. Barry Browning added that a private organization most likely won’t make a profit from operating the shelter. He pointed out that ARF is mainly funded through private donations.
“It won’t make money. At best, it would break even. Basically, it would be an altruistic organization for animals,” noted Dr. Browning. He worries that if the town fails to privatize and is forced to close the doors of the shelter, lost dogs and cats will end up in shelters outside of Southampton Town where the animals run the risk of being euthanized.
Throne-Holst added that assistant animal shelter supervisor Christine Russell and Bambrick have formulated a “rescue plan” if the town fails to privatize the shelter.
“We discussed a real bear bones [approach] to still keep the doors open,” said Throne-Holst. The shelter would still provide housing, food and medical care for the animals, she explained, but the hours of operation would be reduced and a number of full time staffers would be replaced with part-time employees. Throne-Holst added, though, that she was still open to a private partnership.
If both privatization and the “rescue plan” fail to come to fruition, Kabot said the town will work to have other organizations or residents adopt the shelter’s animals. Others say there isn’t enough room in neighboring shelters to care for additional pets.
The Southampton Town Board is slated to discuss proposals for the animal shelter at the next work session on Friday, October 16, at 11:30 a.m.
“Hopefully, this week the council will meet and come to a solution that respects the community’s care for animals and feels lucky a private person stepped up to the plate to eliminate the financial and administrative burdens of running an animal shelter,” remarked Dorothy Frankel, who helped author the petition and will serve as vice president of the foundation. “It seems like a win-win to me.”