Southampton Town Animal Shelter cuts anger critics

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Southampton Town Board members rattled the cages of animal shelter critics with their recent decision to eliminate a veterinary technician position, a move that town officials say was necessary to trim the overall operational costs at the Hampton Bays facility.

The resolution to eliminate the shelter’s veterinary technician position, now held by Wendy Altieri, was unanimously approved by Town Board members during their November 20 meeting. The bill, which was introduced by Town Board member Anna Throne-Holst, takes effect January 1.

The decision to fire Ms. Altieri, who is earning $45,000 a year plus benefits, was made after Ms. Throne-Holst met with Assistant Town Shelter Supervisor Christine Russell prior to last month’s board meeting to find ways to trim the animal shelter’s $1.3 million annual budget. In addition to cutting the veterinary technician position, the approved resolution calls for the elimination of a kennel attendant and a contracted animal behavior specialist. The two cuts will save an additional $121,000, according to town officials.

Former shelter volunteers and employees, as well as several local veterinarians, have been critical of the board’s decision to eliminate Ms. Altieri’s position. The critics, many of whom have written letters to the editor published in The Press, are calling on the Town Board to reconsider eliminating the position.

Ms. Altieri, who has held her position for the past eight years, examines every animal that enters the shelter, administers their vaccinations, and assists the veterinarians with spaying and neutering. If the shelter does not employ a full-time veterinary technician, it must outsource those services. Ms. Altieri declined to be interviewed for this story.

Donald Bambrick, the supervisor of the animal shelter, said in an interview this week that he disagrees with the decision to eliminate the post and, instead, outsource such services in order to save money. He added that he was not consulted by Ms. Russell or Ms. Throne-Holst about the proposed budget cuts.

“I think it’s a bad move,” Mr. Bambrick said on Tuesday. “One of the most important positions is the vet technician.

“To say you can outsource it is a horrible mistake,” he continued. “There are other places you can look to cut cost. You can’t beat having a licensed vet tech on premises.”

Ms. Throne-Holst could not be reached for comment this week.

However, Ms. Russell on Monday defended the cuts, explaining that the animals would continue to receive the same care as they have in the past. She added that none of the animals at the shelter would be adopted without first being spayed or neutered, as well as vaccinated, by a veterinary technician. “The animals are always going to be taken care of,” she said.

Ms. Russell explained that the town has issued requests for proposals from local veterinary clinics that would be charged with completing the services now performed by Ms. Altieri. Ms. Russell said she was confident that outsourcing these services would save the shelter money.

During the Town Board meeting on December 9, Ms. Throne-Holst stated that she and the assistant town shelter supervisor had carefully examined ways to cut costs at the facility. “No decision was made without very careful thought,” she said.

Ms. Throne-Holst also said the town was investigating ways for the shelter to become a revenue-generating facility. She noted that the decision to eliminate Ms. Altieri’s position could be revaluated in the future.

“If it turns out, as we go down the road, that the proper service is not being provided to the animals, we will reconsider,” Ms. Throne-Holst said.

The assistant shelter supervisor explained that prior to advocating the elimination of Ms. Altieri’s position, she had investigated how other shelters operated without a vet technician on staff. Ms. Russell pointed to the municipal-run shelters in Hempstead, Oyster Bay and Smithtown, which do not utilize full-time veterinary technicians.

George Beatty, the director of the Smithtown shelter, said he was skeptical of the plan to abolish Ms. Altieri’s post, though his shelter is run without a vet technician.

“On its face, it seems a little short-sighted,” Mr. Beatty said. “I think every shelter can benefit from a veterinary technician [on staff.]”

Mr. Bambrick, who hired Ms. Altieri, speculated that if her position is eliminated next month, all shelter animals would then have to be brought to private veterinary clinics by shelter employees to receive medical care and vaccinations.

“That would take up incredible amounts of manpower,” he said. “I’d hate to go back to those dark days when we’d euthanize animals for treatable reasons.”

A letter to the editor published in this week’s edition, and signed by 10 local veterinarians, states that the needs of shelter animals might be compromised if there was not a full-time veterinary technician on staff. The letter called for the Town Board to reconsider its “hastily conceived and ill-advised plan and reinstitute Wendy Altieri’s position at the shelter.” The veterinarians who signed the letter are: Emi Berger, Claude Grosjean, Dawn Sterling, Teresa Meekins, Justin Molnar, Diane Bucalo, Jonathan Turetsky, Richard Rothman, Gal Vatash and Barry Browning.

Susan Kinscherf, who has been a volunteer at the shelter for the past eight years, agreed that the firing of Ms. Altieri would be a serious loss for the shelter.

“She has the hardest job there,” Ms. Kinscherf said. “And the job that takes the most time and effort. She’s a shining star, a real gem.”

Staff reporter Brian Bossetta contributed to this story.

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