Contract for animal abuse investigations draws some howls

Bizar Male

Oneida County legislators renewed a nearly $106,000 contract with an outside agency for investigating complaints of animal abuse for another year, but the contentious issue of how to handle such matters may not be settled.

Legislators last week approved a one-year contract through Dec. 31 for $105,951 with the Central New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The SPCA is to investigate reports of cruelty, seize animals when necessary and provide shelter to animals found to be abused, and to work with law enforcement authorities, prosecutors and human societies.

County Emergency Services Director Ed Stevens recommended entering the contract again in a memo to the county executive and forwarded to legislators.

But several lawmakers raised issues with renewing the contract, as they did in mid-2020, when formal renewal was tabled at the committee level but later ratified.

Raising the issue in the spring and again last week was primarily Richard Flisnik, R-8 of Marcy, Floyd and Whitestown, chairman of the Board of Legislators’ Public Safety Committee.

Flisnik told the Daily Sentinel that responsibility for animal abuse had been with local jurisdictions until the county took it over in 2014 and signed a contract with the Syracuse-based CNY SPCA. He noted several SPCA staff members were later arrested in connection with embezzlement from shelter accounts and that the county had reported criticism of the organization in investigations, reporting and communication.

He suggested exploring other options, including providing a stipend to a local organization for seizure and boarding while using sheriff’s deputies with training in the relevant law to conduct investigations, or to seek proposals from other groups next year.

Flisnik was joined by a handful of other legislators. Keith Schiebel, R-1 of Vernon, Verona and Sherrill, suggested there are organizations who could care for farm animals, and Chris Newton, D-13 of New Hartford and Whitestown, said there ought to be a way to get financial restitution from perpetrators.

Other legislators expressed willingness to explore other options but were wary of ending the SPCA relationship abruptly. The contract allows either party to leave with a 30-day notice to the other, but concerns were expressed that even that would leave the county and municipalities too abruptly.

Asked to weigh in, Sheriff Rob Maciol said his agency would have to handle abuse reports in 23 towns, while the other large departments in the county, including police departments in Rome, Utica, New Hartford and Kirkland, as well as village police, would have to take over the responsibility so abruptly. It would also cost more, he predicted.

“I assure you that the cost inucurred with those 300 complaints and vet bills and animal seizures and what not would far exceed $105,000.”

District Attorney Scott McNamara told the Ways and Means Committee Wednesday that while the SPCA has had shortcomings he thinks relying on the SPCA is better because few police officers have training in agriculture and markets law, and police departments, Utica in particular as it faces a rash of shootings already this year, have higher priorities.

McNamara, asked about why there were not more people on a year-old registry of animal abusers, said being listed requires a conviction, not just a complaint or case being brought. About 300 complaints were made in 2020 but there only several open abuse cases.

McNamara and Maciol suggested several reasons, including neighbor disputes or misunderstandings, difficulty in establishing sufficient proof or criminal intent, and neglect from people taking on animals without understanding the costs involved. There are also mental health cases, Maciol noted, such as a Utica case involving 70 hoarded cats.

In one egregious and publicized case, prosecutors seek state prison time over allegations of a dog dragged behind a vehicle, McNamara said.

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