GT County Animal Control’s Uncertain Future
Is one part-time officer enough to cover 600 square miles and up to 600 calls about neglected, abused, or dangerous animals?
By Patrick Sullivan | Oct. 28, 2017
Deb Zerafa is the person who checks on someone suspected of hoarding cats. She’s whom the police call if they find sickly dogs locked up in cages in a house. If you’re walking down a trail and get bitten by a dog, it’s Zerafa who comes to investigate.
“A lot of [my job] is just trying to diffuse a situation that could become volatile between neighbors,” Zerafa said. “There’s a lot of neighbor-to-neighbor issues.”
On Oct. 17, Zerafa was working on one of those neighbor disputes in East Bay Township. Several weeks earlier, a woman had been bitten by a neighbor’s dog and required a rabies quarantine. Zerafa needed to follow up because the at-fault dog owner continued to let her dogs run loose. Zerafa knocked on the woman’s door, and while the cars outside and lights on inside suggested otherwise, no one was home — at least no one who would come to the door.
“I’ve got to talk to the owner,” Zerafa said. “I’ve gotten four calls since last week. This has got to stop.”
PART-TIME TO FULL-TIME
That’s the kind of case — one after another — that makes up Zerafa’s day.
After a year on the job, however, the future of funding for Zerafa’s department is uncertain.
Zerafa is one of Grand Traverse County’s one-and-a-half animal control officers, the lone occupiers of a department that’s been at the center of the firestorm over the county’s legacy pension-debt shortfall and consequent tight budgets.
Until recently, Grand Traverse County had two full-time animal control officers. But in late 2015, under direction of former county administrator Tom Menzel, country commissioners voted to end its animal control services, ostensibly shifting what is technically labeled a “non-essential” service to the sheriff’s department.
But saddling law enforcement with the additional and unwanted responsibility of managing the county’s number loose and neglected animals spurred frustration from the sheriff’s department — and the public.
In response, officials concocted a workaround to fund a stripped-down but dedicated animal control department: It would use funds collected from the dog license fees (starting at $15 per year for spayed or neutered dogs) to establish a part-time position for animal control in the health department. Zerafa started the job on Oct. 17, 2016.
In May 2017, officials went one step further. They determined the money that had been collected for dog licenses during the period the county had stopped funding its own animal control — when it had shifted responsibility to law enforcement — could be used to make Zerafa full-time, plus allow them to hire a part-time second officer in June. This enabled the department to operate at nearly the same strength at which it operated before the 2015 cuts.
The problem? The move was a temporary stopgap. That money is about to run out. And if the county doesn’t approve additional funding by the end of November, the department will revert to one employee working 25 hours a week to respond to every animal control issue in Grand Traverse County’s 600 square miles.
A TYPICAL, EXTRAORDINARY DAY
Every morning, Zerafa arrives to the office on Lafranier Road and checks voicemail. There might be a handful of messages. There might be 30. Some of those cases are easy to resolve. Others might take days or weeks and dozens of site visits.
“You have to go on site because you cannot issue a citation unless you personally hand it to them,” she said.
In some cases, Zerafa has to refer callers elsewhere.
Zerafa recently got a call about a bear and cubs roaming in the Boardman River valley near a subdivision. That kind of call is beyond her expertise, so she refers those to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Some people get referred to cat rescue organizations. Sometimes Zerafa passes along the number for Critter Control.
The animal control voicemail message attempts to triage callers: Wildlife calls are referred to the DNR, calls about stray dogs that need shelter go to the Cherryland Humane Society, and calls about dogs in Traverse City go to Traverse City [animal control department?].
Zerafa doesn’t like the message and said she wishes that animal control officers coild just take all the calls. When people call Traverse City Police about a loose dog, for example, they just get referred back to Zerafa anyway.
Zerafa and her part-time fellow officer handle dozens of complaints each week and visit strange places across Grand Traverse County, yet they are not law enforcement officers. It’s not uncommon for dog-law scofflaws to try to skirt them.
“So these people have my number now, and they don’t answer the door,” Zerafa said of a long-lasting case in Fife Lake. “They will not answer the door. And so I am very determined to get them. If I have to do a stakeout, I will get them.”
THE COUNTY WANTS YOU:
TO GET YOUR DOGS LICENSED
There are an estimated 20,400 dogs in Grand Traverse County; 4,519 of those dogs were licensed in 2016, according to county estimates. If all of those dogs were licensed, the animal control budget could be a half-million dollars a year. The 2016 animal control budget, however, was about $133,000.
Zerafa thinks there are more dogs living in the county, perhaps as many as 30,000 to 40,000 dogs, and estimates that 10 percent of them are licensed. No one knows for sure.
County Commissioner Cheryl Gore Follette said she and other commissioners were waiting to see the proposed county budget for next year to determine whether they can find some money to maintain one full-time and one part-time officer.
“I think that from what I’ve heard from the citizens, that there is a desire for us to have animal control,” Gore Follette said. “So the question is, do we have the room in the budget?”
Gore Follette didn’t know whether any action could be taken by the end of November to preserve the level of animal control the county has seen this summer, however.
“Therein lies the rub,” she said. “Again, I have absolutely no idea what the next cycle’s proposed budget is going to look like. We have a new administrator — we have a lot of changes coming up.”
Officials hope to encourage more people to buy dog licenses in order to increase the money available to fund the department. Earlier this year, they commissioned a public service announcement filmed by Brauer Productions to encourage dog owners who have neglected to license their pets to pay for license.
Gore Follette hopes the animal control dilemma is solved next year with the passage of a millage. She believes the people want it. And she said it would be more fair for all citizens in the county to shoulder the cost of animal control rather than just dog owners. Animal control officers, after all, deal with problems caused by all kinds of animals, not just dogs.
“I have heard from people who are not animal owners who want animal control,” she said.
Gore Follette doesn’t believe the county could fund animal control through its general fund because the budget is just too tight.
“We just don’t have a lot of fat in the budget,” she said. “If there’s a way that I can find $200,000, problem solved for right now.”
WHEN DOES A FEE BECOME A TAX?
TJ Andrews, a Traverse City attorney, wrote the county prosecutor’s office this summer with an objection to the use of dog license fees to fund animal control.
Andrews, who said she was writing as a county resident and taxpayer, wrote that she believes state law does not allow counties to raise revenue through fees because fees are meant to serve a specific purpose. Revenue to run something like animal control, Andrews argued, should come from taxes.
“I am curious how a dog license fee that is apparently being used explicitly to generate revenues to fund the County animal control department is not a tax,” she wrote. “Animal control is obviously addressing many problems unrelated to licensed dogs — such as rescuing gulls off rooftops (also dealing with stray cats, removing wild animals from the residential neighborhoods, and so on).”
Andrews said she supports animal control and believes that it is a county service that should be supported by all residents.
Gore Follette said she doesn’t believe Andrews’ objections are valid.
“One person has raised that issue, and I’ve spoken with our cousel, and he doesn’t believe that’s an impediment,” Gore Follette said.
Asked whether she thought Andrews was wrong or whether the objection merely didn’t need to be taken seriously, she referred the question to the county’s attorney, Christopher Forsyth, who referred the question to his boss, Prosecutor Robert Cooney, who didn’t respond to a request for comment.
UNCERTAINTY AMONG OFFICIALS
It’s unclear whether there is any consensus in the county over what should happen to animal control.
At a study session in June, commissioners discussed putting the service back under the control of the sheriff’s department.
That proposal did not please Sheriff Tom Bensley. He made a curt comment at the meeting: “So, my understanding is that some on this board would like us to take an operation that is underfunded, understaffed, undermanaged, and make a miracle out of it. That’s not going to happen.”
In an interview, Bensley said he believes the County needs to determine the level of service they want from animal control and then find a way to fund it. He’s sent out a survey to counties across the state to learn how animal control is funded and where it’s placed elsewhere to better inform what happens in Grand Traverse County.
Zerafa hopes that a well-funded animal control can be added to the sheriff’s department because she believes that animal control officers need to have police powers. She said her work often brings her into dangerous situations and there isn’t always a deputy nearby to back her up.
After Bensley spoke at the meeting, Zerafa told the board: “I have worked diligently, tirelessly, and all alone to resurrect a dying program for these dying animals. I put my life at risk every day. I’ve gone out with a bulletproof vest on. I have a CPL license that I cannot carry. I’m not allowed to carry a taser, a baton, or pepper spray,” she said. “So I don’t know why I am doing what I am doing, and it’s only — I will stand here and tell you — it’s only for the love of the animals.”
Bensley said Zerafa should be able to carry a weapon; if she can’t, that’s likely due to health department policy, and that could change. He said deputies can back up animal control officers no matter which department they are a part of.
Benlsey said he’s not ready to say he would be willing to negotiate taking animal control into his department; the way it was thrust upon him in early 2016 without any discussion or notice still stings.
“THIS STUFF BREAKS MY HEART”
Despite some progress over the past year, ambivalence to even address the issue is evident among some commissioners.
Earlier in that June study session, commissioner Dan Lathrop, who was among the commissioners who voted in late 2015 to eliminate animal control, seemed to wonder why the topic was even being discussed again.
“Why are we having this meeting?” Lathrop said. “Is there something big that came up?”
Lathrop did not respond to a message seeking comment.
At the meeting, Lathrop’s comment prompted Gore Follette to explain that she called for the study session because she is an animal lover, and she’s worried about animal abuse and neglect and increased dog bites in the county.
“I mean, this stuff breaks my heart, OK? And if it doesn’t break yours, shame on you,” Gore Follette said. “I met with the animal control officer, and she showed me pictures from animals that she had to deal with this year. It would break your heart. And she’s trying to deal with it 25 hours a week with a truck that’s a piece of crap — it’s an embarrassment to the county — with a budget that’s a joke. So yeah, I called for a meeting.”
Toward the end of the discussion, Lathrop seemed to change his mind. He proposed an ad hoc committee to try to solve the problem, and he joined the committee.
THE ANIMALS AND THE LAW
Dan Thorell, director of environmental health, said Zerafa had been a great asset to his department because other employees are not trained to deal directly with animals as Zarafa is. Zerafa also has decades of experience as a paralegal, so she understands the law.
During the period when there was no animal control officer, some of the old responsibilities shifted to the sheriff’s department, some to health department, and some were simply unattended.
The health department still had to handle dog bite cases, Thorell said, so that work shifted to nurses who work in the communicable disease section of the health department. Since Zerafa took over, and since the funding has been elevated this summer, many of those cases have returned to animal control.
Zerafa is confident that a millage could pass in 2018, and she hopes that, until then, commissioners can figure out a way so that she’s not a lone part-time officer in between now and then. “I don’t think our commissioners are going to let that happen right now,” she said. “I say that with optimism because they’ve given me a voice at their meetings, which I think was kind of absent.”