Shelter Leaders & Town Officials Initiate Talks
BY ROBERT KNIGHT
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES
Volunteers who run Rockland County’s Hi-Tor Animal Shelter in Pomona received a warm reception Tuesday evening from the Orangetown Town Board, as the non-profit agency appears to have virtually given up in its quest to build a newer, bigger and better shelter on county land at or near its current location, adjacent to the Fire Training Center.
Orangetown has hundreds of acres of vacant land it has no use for, some of it considered highly desirable for future development and other parcels far less so. Hi-Tor needs three to five acres of land anywhere in Rockland County that is dry and suitable for constructing a new animal shelter, including a heated and air conditioned building, indoor and outdoor pens and runs, parking, storage and related facilities.
Officials of both the town and the agency declared Tuesday’s informal discussion an apparent “marriage made in heaven” if some sticky details can be worked out. And both sides pledged to continue the discussions and to try and reach an agreement as quickly as possible.
“It’s a matter of we’ve got the land but no money, and you’ve got the money but no land,” one town official said after the meeting, shrugging his shoulders as if matching the two concepts was somewhat less than brain surgery.
Representatives from both sides agreed that the impetus for the discussions began as Orangetown officials observed with dismay the ongoing battle between Hi-Tor volunteers and county officials over construction of a new shelter at the Pomona site, where it has sat for the past 40 years and is now severely deteriorated and in need of replacement.
Democratic Supervisor Andrew Stewart and Republican Councilman Thomas Diviny both have friends involved with Hi-Tor, and are sympathetic to the organization’s goals of protecting the county’s unwanted pets and finding new homes for them.
At the same time, Orangetown’s Town Board is scheduled to vote next week on renewing its annual contract with Hi-Tor, through which the town gives the agency $26,520 to house, support and find new homes for all of the animals brought to it by the town’s animal control officers.
What could be more logical, Stewart and Diviny agreed, than to invite Hi-Tor officials to attend Tuesday’s workshop session to review the contract, and then to discuss the agency’s future, and a possible new home for it in Orangetown.
The meeting more than met both sides’ expectations, they said, and concluded with “thank yous” being exchanged back and forth as members took turns congratulating each other for being so cooperative and so receptive to the other’s viewpoints, and so willing to work around the many stumbling blocks that seem to have scuttled Hi-Tor’s negotiations with Rockland County.
Hi-Tor board President Roberta Bangs led off the discussion with a litany of complaints about her volunteer agency’s treatment at the hands of the Rockland County Legislature and County Executive, all of whom she said have worked consistently for the past year or two to thwart the agency’s plans to re-build a brand new shelter in Pomona to replace the badly deteriorated one that is there now.
Orangetown officials actually invited Hi-Tor to come and meet with them and explain their problem, to see if a joint solution could be found, Bangs noted gratefully. And it is also the only municipality among all of Rockland County’s 20 towns and villages to offer such an interest, she added, giving their hundreds of volunteers a reason amidst the current gloom to again hope that a bright future can yet exist.
Bangs said that until the 1960’s, every municipality was responsible for caring for all stray dogs within their boundaries.
By the end of that decade a volunteer agency had been created by several Rockland residents, led by Marcella Beagle of New City. Incorporating as a 501©3 non-profit called the Hi-Tor Animal Care Center, Inc., they negotiated a free lease with the county for a small parcel of land at the end of Firemen’s Memorial Drive in Pomona, just beyond the county’s new fire training center.
Construction of the county’s first and only shelter began in 1971 and was completed in 1973,when the facility first opened its doors, and its kennels, to Rockland’s stray, lost, abandoned, homeless and unwanted dogs. Cats were soon added as well, and although the shelter isn’t charged with it, it has welcomed every type of animal, reptile and bird needing a temporary home, from goats to turtles to alligators to macaws, parrots and birds of pray.
Under terms of the lease, according to Bangs, the county provided the land and the non-profit agency had to build and operate the shelter, at its own expense.
That facility is now 40 years old, she noted, and has never been properly maintained because no one had the money. Her agency uses every penny it raises to pay the utilities, make minor repairs as needed, pay staff salaries, pay veterinarian bills, buy pet food and do everything else needed to keep the shelter afloat over the four decades.
Now the entire facility needs to be replaced, and quickly, before it collapses, Bangs told the Town Board, adding that each new snowstorm brings with it the fear that a couple of inches of white stuff could spell the shelter’s instant demise, along with the hundreds of pets housed within it.
The utilities, including electrical, plumbing, water, sewage, heat and air conditioning have all surpassed their life span and are continually breaking down and needing repairs, Bangs added. She says the county refuses to make the repairs, claiming it is not their building, while at the same time refusing to allow Hi-Tor to make the repairs, on the grounds private citizens are not permitted to work on county facilities.
So far, she explained, the volunteers have been arm-twisting their families, relatives and friends to make the repairs free of charge, but this generosity has just about reached its limits. The next emergency, whatever and whenever it is, may be the agency’s last, she said, as they have just about run out of human and financial resources.
Realizing they were stretched thin, Bangs said a new committee was formed by the Board of Directors a couple of years ago called “Re-Build Hi-Tor,” the goal of which is strictly to raise funds to construct a brand new animal shelter.
The original goal was to raise a minimum of $650,000, she explained, of which nearly $250,000 has already been accumulated through numerous generous contributions. A new shelter is expected to cost between $1.5 and $2 million, she explained, but the agency is confident is can accomplish the job for the $650,000 through the use of lots of volunteer labor and contributed services and materials.
No sooner had Hi-Tor started reaching its goal, however, than the county began placing obstacles in the way, Bangs and other Hi-Tor leaders said Tuesday.
First, the county said the agency couldn’t build the new shelter on the site of current one because that would create at least a one-year gap with no shelter. And Hi-Tor could not get around that by building the new shelter on a different site, because the county will not give the agency any other land but the plot it currently occupies.
And most of the land around Hi-Tor is designated county parkland, Bangs added, on which the shelter cannot be built by county and state law. Hi-Tor offered to build on land immediately in front of the shelter, but this too is parkland, the county told them. Land behind the shelter is not so designated, but is low and swampy and could not be used without more than $1 million in remediation efforts, Bangs said, making that site unfeasible.
End of Rope
The rope separating Hi-Tor and county officials apparently stretched beyond its breaking point last week, when Re-build Hi-Tor fundraising chair Donald Franchino suddenly threatened to quit because of roadblocks he said were placed in the path of a new shelter by County Executive C. Scott Vanderhoef and Legislature Chair Harriet Cornell.
“I will consider abandoning this effort and dump it in Scott and Harriet’s laps,” Franchino said in an angry e-mail blast. “After all, they have successfully put this county in debt for the foreseeable future.
“They obviously are not willing to accept a million dollar shelter for free – let them build one and put this county deeper in debt,” Franchino complained.
Just when all seemed lost to the frustrated Hi-Tor volunteers, along came calls from Stewart and Diviny saying Orangetown has hundreds of acres of excess land, and would love to talk with shelter leaders about possibly moving the facility to Orangetown.
The result was a packed town hall meeting room Tuesday, with some two-dozen Hi-Tor officers and volunteers present to witness the discussion and cheer the potential marriage along.
Pearl River resident Jeffrey Keahon, Hi-Tor’s first vice president, praised town officials, noting that Orangetown is the only municipality in all of Rockland County that has shown any interest in protecting the county’s neglected pets.
He agreed with the concept that a joint venture between Orangetown and Hi-Tor was a match made in heaven because “we have the money and the ability to raise even more, but we have no land. You have the land but like every municipality you are short of money.”
He and Bangs explained to the council that under New York State law stray dogs are the legal and financial responsibility of every town and city. In Rockland, each town has its own dog or animal control officer, but in 1970 the towns decided to pool their resources and transfer housing responsibility from themselves to the county. The result was Hi-Tor in Pomona, with the county supplying the land and the towns sharing in the expense of operating the shelter, through the nonprofit Hi-Tor agency. That is Orangetown’s 2013 expense of $26,520.
Without the county shelter, Keahon explained that the town would have to set aside a parcel of land, construct its own shelter, and hire full-time staff to operate it, as well as provide the utilities, food and other expenses, estimating the town’s total cost under such a scenario would be well over $100,000 annually, after the million cost of building the structure itself. Each of the other towns would have to do the same thing.
Bangs and Keahon said everyone would gain financially from a Hi-Tor – Orangetown joint venture, including the town, the county, the other towns, and the Hi-Tor agency.
The county would get its land back at Pomona, and not have to worry about building a new shelter. Orangetown would provide land it already owns free and clear and Hi-Tor would build the new shelter, provide the staff and operate the facility, at no cost to Orangetown. The other four towns would be able to use the shelter by just paying an annual fee to the agency, as they already do.
Bangs said when it first opened, Hi-Tor was a “kill” facility, meaning if an animal was not adopted within seven days of its arrival, it was euthanized to make room for a new unwanted pet.
The agency converted to a “no-kill” facility several ago, however, and currently only euthanizes a dog if it is vicious, cannot be trained, and can never be adopted. Otherwise, the agency accepts pets of all types and will keep them until they can be adopted or otherwise cared for, Bangs added, even if that means keeping them for weeks or even months.
As the marriage discussion unfolded Tuesday, council members could only come up with a couple of possible glitches.
In similar circumstances the town has given land for free to non-profit agencies to run a service for the town, such as agreements reached a few years ago with the South Orangetown Little League and a youth soccer league, in which the town provided the land and the leagues built the clubhouses, bathrooms, refreshment stands, bleachers and stadium lighting.
Under those agreements, however, the facilities become town property after several years, and the town made the leagues use PLAs or project labor agreements for the construction work, in which they had to guarantee that prevailing union wages would be paid to the construction crews.
Would Hi-Tor agree to the shelter becoming town property at some point, and could they afford a PLA instead of volunteer and donated labor and materials, councilmen wanted to know.
The questions appeared to catch Hi-Tor officials off guard. Unfazed, however, they said they would discuss those items with their attorneys and supporters, if the town would likewise discuss them with their advisors to see if “alternatives” could be found that would be mutually advantageous to both sides.
Orangetown already owns vacant land scattered throughout the township that has no specified use, such as a former sewer treatment plant off Hunt Road in Orangeburg, a former Nike missile base on top of Clausland Mountain and excess acreage at is huge highway and sewer treatment plant complex off Route 303 in Tappan, among others.
Orangetown also purchased 348 acres of land at the former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus in Orangeburg a decade ago and is still trying to decide what to do with most of that property.
And more recently the town has asked the state to sell it several hundred more acres at the RPC campus, including the former children’s hospital, staff court, power plant, laundry and other facilities along with considerable vacant land.
If that move is also successful, the town is hopeful of moving town hall and all of its departments into the former children’s hospital, meaning the current town hall and the current building department (a former elementary school) would also be vacated and available for sale or re-use.
Bangs explained that Hi-Tor currently has 30 dog kennels but is almost always overcrowded with as many as 100 at any given time. It also has room for 50 cats, but frequently houses 100 to 150. It has no special facilities for birds, reptiles, farm animals and other “guests,” but finds indoor or outdoor space as needed at the dilapidated facility.
The shelter now sits on a half-acre site of county land in Pomona, immediately north of the fire training center. Bangs said the new site should be a minimum of two acres, but that five acres would be “ideal” for all current and future needs of the organization.
Location is not important, she said, as long as the land is dry and buildable. It would be preferable to have it in a wooded or commercial location, she said, so barking and other noises would not bother residential neighbors.
Facilities at the shelter would include a building containing offices, storage and kennels for dogs, cats and other animals. There would also be outdoor runs, especially for the dogs and larger animals, and open space where volunteers could take pets for controlled walks and picnics. There would also be a small paved parking lot for staff, visitors and guests.
At Stewart and Diviny’s invitation, Bangs said her board and volunteers would begin exploring potential town sites in Orangetown with town department leaders and town planners, and would develop more specific plans about fund raising and construction of a new facility to meet any town requirements.