LINDEN – An ad hoc committee is in the process of overhauling how the city’s animal control facility operates based on the 23 violations recently found at the shelter as well as the unsatisfactory rating received from the state.
However, the city fully intends to move forward with demolishing the deteriorating shelter in 2015 and building a new one that is up to code, as reported in LocalSource Aug. 7.
This will leave five towns that contract for animal control services from Linden, including Rahway, Roselle, Clark, Fanwood and Winfield Park, looking for another provider for this state mandated service.
In recent months the shelter has come under fire not only for multiple health code violations but also complaints from the private sector about unsanitary conditions at the facility and animals allegedly being euthanized before the seven-day holding period had elapsed.
The Elizabeth Health Department was called in by the ad hoc committee in early May to inspect the facility after discovering the shelter had not been inspected since 2007. Among the 23 violations found was the fact the facility had no current certificate of veterinary supervision, which is required by law, and no ventilation in the interior of the building located on Lower Road.
Crumbling doors and fencing, rusted animal enclosures and urine and feces filled water containers were also cited as violations, which resulted in a conditional rating, according to the report LocalSource obtained from the Linden Health Department using the Open Public Records Act.
A state inspection conducted July 23 and obtained by LocalSource resulted in an “unsatisfactory” rating due to the building having unsafe structural defects, animals not being held for seven days prior to euthanization, use of improper drugs when euthanizing animals and incomplete record keeping.
Mayor Rich Gerbounka, though, disagreed with all the violations found, except one.
“I agree the incomplete record keeping did take place,” the mayor said, but noted that the city is resolving this and other issues.
“I haven’t seen any proof of the violations they found,” he said, adding the city engineer was at the shelter when the Elizabeth Health Department conducted their inspection and he felt the shelter was structurally sound.
According to the Elizabeth Health Department Inspection Report conducted by Mark Colicchio, Assistant Health Officer, the conditions he cited as violations were not in compliance with New Jersey State Statutes regarding animal control facilities.
Colicchio noted on his report the Linden facility was, in fact, in violation of state statute NJAC 8:23A 1.5 a total of 22 times out of the 23 violations he reported.
Gerbounka agreed the shelter was old and needed to be replaced anyway but pointed out the ad hoc committee report explained how things would now operate until the shelter closes the end of the year.
Still in question is how much it will cost to build the new shelter and how much taxpayers will have to kick in towards the project.
According to the report issued by the ad hoc Animal Control Committee the cost of the new facility will not be entirely financed by taxpayer dollars, but there was little indication where they intend to find the money.
“The committee is projecting this facility to be mostly financed by donations and private funding through different channels, as available, rather than taxpayer dollars,” the report said.
Friday Gerbounka said the city is going to look into other funding sources but is aware Linden will have to contribute significantly to the project, unless another way to finance it can be found.
“We have a few ideas that could cut the cost to taxpayers,” Gerbounka added.
The review and proposed overhaul of the facility, according to the ad hoc committee’s report, was undertaken after concerns about conditions at the facility were brought to the mayor and council. Although the report does not indicate when that occurred, it did mention the committee formed in June.
At issue is how the committee, formed in June, could have asked the Elizabeth Health Department to conduct an inspection that took place May 8, a month prior.
In the ad hoc report, though, the committee clearly indicated they requested the Elizabeth Health Department inspect the shelter, specifically to make sure there were no signs of animal abuse or neglect and to evaluate the current structural housing and building.
Committee members include Council member Michele Yamakaitis, who is the chair, along with Councilmen Adam Kucynski and Armando Medina. The committee, the report noted, also worked closely with the mayor.
While the report acknowledged there are problems at the animal control facility, the committee agreed with Gerbounka’s assessment that many of the concerns voiced on social media and elsewhere were merely rumors.
“We immediately set out to either verify or debunk these claims as can be expected, the Yamakaitis said. “We began to recognize that some of the claims had some validity, which we addressed as quickly as possible. But, we also began to see that many did not have merit, as it seems that they were propagated rumors, duplications, or misunderstandings which often occur in the social media realm.”
The report also mentioned the committee paid a visit to Woodbridge Township’s Animal Control facility to review their practices, toured the building and met with professionals in various fields, including regional volunteers to better understand the issues relating to animal control.
“This was something the council didn’t take lightly. It was my intent as chairperson to make sure we investigated every complaint, to the greatest extent, even if it delayed our findings,” said Yamakaitis.
Confusing is why the report did not mention that Health Officer Nancy Koblis, charged with overseeing the Linden Health Department, had not authorized an inspection of the animal shelter since 2007. This is a direct violation of the New Jersey State Health Department statutes, which mandates that every animal control facility undergo an inspection annually.
When asked about this in an interview in early August, Koblis had no explanation for how this could have happened.
“We get very busy and it fell by the wayside,” the health officer said, adding she had asked the city council for additional funding to make needed repairs but was turned down.
Gerbounka also sidestepped the issue, preferring to focus on the building of a new shelter, perhaps one that is modular.
“That can be less expensive and just as good as any other,” he added.
The mayor also said the city fully intended to make the repairs needed in order to keep operating the facility until the end of the year.
“We have contracts with other towns to honor for four more months,” the mayor said.
According to several of the towns involved, the fee these municipalities pay to Linden varied according to the size of the municipality.
Although several of the health officials contracting with Linden pointed out the first indication they had that Linden would not be offering animal control services in 2015 came when they read it in the Aug. 7 edition of LocalSource.
Gerbounka said he called each of the mayor’s involved.
“I made sure I called the mayor’s before the story came out in the paper to ensure they knew we would honor our contract through the end of the year and in 2015 we would be demolishing the old shelter and building a new one,” he said.
Gerbounka also mentioned that Roselle Mayor Jamel Holley suggested that because there are so few options open to municipalities without animal control services, perhaps the towns contracting with Linden should enter a shared services agreement, including the cost of building a new shelter.
“I think that is a great idea,” said Gerbounka, but pointed out that this was something that would have to be discussed further with the mayors involved.
Currently the city shells out about $222,000 a year to operate the animal shelter, but it is unknown how much each of the five municipalities contributes to this cost.
There are two full time animal control officers on the payroll, which handle animal control calls in the five contracting towns plus Linden, along with a part-time employee that remains on site at the shelter.
The ad hoc committee recommended both short and long-term plans for the shelter.
Short term plans included that all euthanasia procedures immediately stop at the shelter, with the exception of extremely injured or sick animals. Instead, any euthanasia procedures will be handled at the Rahway Animal Clinic.
The committee also recommended that immediate repairs be made to ensure the facility remains viable as an animal control facility, including replacing doors, gates, lighting, electrical work, landscaping, ventilation and equipment maintenance, as necessary.
The committee also advised that there be investigation into other ways to advise the public of adoptable animals at the shelter, in addition to notifying owners that lost pets can be reclaimed. This included posting photographs of the animals with the location as soon as possible after pickup.
Long term goals included the recommendation of demolishing the current facility and building a new one that is “tailored to the needs of the animals and those who wish to assist and volunteer.”
Gerbounka pointed out that there was a delay in upgrading the Linden animal shelter “on a grand scale” due to the proposed Union County Animal Control Facility that was supposed to serve the entire county.
“However that project stalled over the years and eventually failed,” the mayor added.
“Our facility certainly wasn’t the best in the area, but we attempted to maintain it with reasonable standards while Union County was proposing a county-wide facility,” Gerbounka said.
Kuczynski was aware that the city had its work cut out.
“These animals come from a variety of circumstances and backgrounds, whether lost, neglected, or abused. So it will take a concerted effort and time to create an agency that can handle these challenges and adopt out as many of these animals as possible,” he said.
Moving forward the committee plans to continue its focus on the long-term goals while following up on the short-term solutions at the current site.
“We want to thank all those who have shown their concern for these animals,” Yamakaitis said, adding “and we want to ask you to help us move forward and fix the issues we found.”