County may refuse to pick up dogs in city
Published: Thursday, July 17th, 2014
The clock is ticking on how long the Custer County Sheriff’s Department will corral loose dogs within the limits of the City of Custer—and it started counting down last week from 60 days.
That number isn’t even a guarantee, however.
At the July 9 meeting of the Custer County Commission, the commission once again wrangled with what to do with the animal control situation, to a man saying they are tired of “kicking the can down the road” and wondering aloud if picking up dogs within the city limits of Custer is stretching an already stretched sheriff’s department too thin.
The saga of what to do with animal control in the county began at the beginning of the year, when long-time animal control officer Geney Ziolkowski retired, taking with her the only facility in town to store stray dogs. Ziolkowski did the animal control for both the county and city for $600 a month from each entity and took any animals she picked up to the facility on her property in the northeast part of town.
Since that time the city and county have discussed several options on how to deal with the situation, none of which have come to fruition. The impasse has left both sides frustrated and Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler, the man for whom animal control fell into his lap, at wits’ end.
“I can’t keep doing this,” Wheeler told the commission at the meeting. “I don’t have the man power.”
In the winter, Wheeler and his staff received far fewer stray dog calls, which they were able to keep up with. Wheeler said the department bends over backwards to locate the owners of stray dogs and return them. However, when the owner can’t be located, the dog must be warehoused somewhere, and that is where the rub has long been. The department has even had to keep dogs in its sally port at the Custer County Courthouse, and thought it had a solution when it began to house the dogs in the old Kelly well house on Washington Street in Custer. Business owners and residents in that neighborhood turned out in force at a city council meeting to oppose housing dogs in that area, however, so that plan, too, was scrapped.
These days, stray dogs that are picked up are still reunited with their owners as quickly and as often as possible, but dogs for which an owner can’t be located are often taken back to the sally port or transported to Battle Mountain Humane Society in Hot Springs.
The staff at Battle Mountain has worked diligently to help the sheriff’s department, but don’t always have room for dogs or aren’t always available to come pick up the dogs. The result is the department still doesn’t always have a place to take the dogs or time to drive them to Hot Springs, meaning they must be held somewhere, again bringing the county’s glaring lack of such a facility to the forefront. Ziolkowski was asked if the facility on her property could still be used, and she declined.
Wheeler pointed out that as the summer advances, his staff is busier and doesn’t have time to answer the lower priority dogs-at-large calls.
“We are strapped. This is a busy time of year. To try to provide animal control on top of it all is going to get iffy,” he said.
State statute requires the county to provide animal control for the county, but not within city limits. The sheriff’s department is obligated, however, to respond to calls where “vicious” dogs are present within the city or when those dogs become a public nuisance.
“How do you know what dog is vicious? How do you tell that,” asked City of Custer Mayor Gary Lipp, who was present at the meeting.
Lipp was responding to an idea being considered by the commission that would see the sheriff’s department stop responding entirely to dogs-at-large calls within city limits and doing the bare minimum of animal control required by state statute, meaning municipalities within the county would be left to fend for themselves to find animal control unless the aforementioned vicious or nuisance dog was present at a call.
It appeared the city and county had reached an agreement, albeit tenuous, last month to have the county continue providing animal control for the city, but the county balked at signing a contract with the city when it was determined the city required the county to take out an additional $2 million in liability insurance for its deputies to handle the animal control.
County attorney Tracy Kelley said with the sheriff’s office stacking calls, if a dog call were to come in within the city limits and the sheriff’s department couldn’t respond to it immediately, it could raise a question as to where the liability lies if the dog were to bite someone.
“I don’t think it (the sheriff’s department) has the resources to respond to all these calls,” she said.
Wheeler said the sheriff’s department spent 58 man hours this year through June corralling loose dogs, and commissioners pointed out that doesn’t include the cost of insurance, fuel for the vehicles and the like. City officials pointed out, however, that through their law enforcement contract with the city, the city already helps pay for fuel and maintenance costs on those vehicles.
After a hastily called executive session, commissioners told Lipp the county would grant the city a 60-day grace period in which it would still collect the city’s stray dogs, but only if the city agrees to carry the liability insurance and add the county as an additional insured for dog collection in the city, instead of the other way around. County auditor Nancy Christensen told the commission the county’s insurance provider indicated that is the way it should be done to save the county a giant bump in its premium costs.
During the 60-day grace period, commission chairman Phil Lampert said the county would explore all of its options, up to and including scaling back its animal control ordinance or repealing it altogether and starting over.
“This has to come to a head,” Kelley said.
Wheeler remained steadfast in his belief that if the city and county work together to build a facility, a private citizen will take over the animal control.
“Until we do that, it’s going to be this; back and forth, back and forth,” he said.
Wheeler said it is unrealistic and too expensive to expect a private party to build such a facility. That was a sentiment shared by commissioner Mark Hartman, who implored the county to consider paying someone more than the $1,200 a month Ziolkowski was being paid.
“For $1,200 a month, no one is going to do it,” he said.
Wheeler implied a previous idea to make a facility out of part of the county’s weed and pest building was dead on arrival, saying it would be too costly to remodel and that there wasn’t enough room with all that was being stored there. He said he felt a stand-alone facility is the way to go, feeling the county has a leg up on building one since it already has land. To that end, Wheeler said he is having deputy Heath Lowry work on a proposal for putting together such a facility, which he estimated would cost around $100,000.
Lampert disagreed, saying after looking at the weed and pest building, he felt it would be an “easy fix” to turn part of it into a temporary holding facility, but Lowry told him that even if a facility is temporary, there are certain requirements it must meet to ensure the humane treatment of the animals.
“Everyone in this room knows how passionate people are about their animals, even strays,” he said. “If you do it wrong, the black eye that results is hard to overcome.”
Lowry said any facility must have veterinary services, floor drains, a means for disposal, an area for cats and for euthanasia, among other items, although some of those could be contracted out.
Lowry argued that while the county doesn’t want to get into the business of long-term animal care, if it were to ever end up that way, doing a facility right from the outset would put them one step ahead of the game.
Commissioner Travis Bies was among those most opposed to building a facility, saying the county needs to stick to law enforcement, not dog catching, and do the bare minimum required of them.
“We didn’t build a jail for a reason. We can contract it out cheaper,” he said.
Kelley told Bies the fact they can’t get anyone to contract with them is the problem.
“We still have to deal with this, either on a small scale or a large scale,” she said.
The commission encouraged any private party interested in providing animal control to bring a proposal foward.
“We have to get our law enforcement agency back to law enforcement, not dog catching,” commissioner Dave Hazeltine said.
Click Here To See More Stories Like This