Animal shelter RFP causes stir at Town Board meeting

When Southold Town last week issued a request for proposals to run the town’s animal shelter in the midst of contract negotiations with the shelter’s current managers, the North Fork Animal Welfare League, rumors began to run rampant.

Nearly 100 supporters of the shelter turned out at a town board meeting Tuesday night to blast the board for its request for proposals, which board members said was issued in the interest of doing due diligence in ensuring that the management of the shelter is giving taxpayers the best value for their money.

The members of the public were spurred on by an op-ed piece published on an internet news source that implied town officials had already made a back-door deal with another entity to run the shelter, and by a letter sent to other animal service organizations soliciting proposals by a woman who has long been an opponent of the League’s presence at the shelter, ostensibly at the urging of a member of the Town Board.

Town Supervisor Scott Russell said before taking comments that “there is no intention, clandestine or otherwise, to create a kill shelter of any kind. There is no effort to create a municipal shelter of any kind. There’s no intent to end our relationship with the North Fork Animal Welfare League.”

Mr. Russell said the board had sent the League’s attorney a proposal for a new contract in mid-January, but that the League’s attorney, instead of making a counter-offer, had said they want to continue the terms of their old contract, which expires on March 31.

Members of the board said they need to change some aspects of the contract, including asking the League to pay part of the $35,000 to $40,000 annual energy costs of the shelter, to have the shelter provide the name of their animal control officer to the town and provide provisions for handling dog licenses, which as of Jan. 1 are processed by towns instead of New York State.

Currently, the town pays the League just over $197,000 per year to run the shelter. The League raises the remaining $180,00 of its annual budget through fundraising.

Michael Edelson, a member of the public from Greenport who spoke at the hearing, brought with him a copy of a letter written by  Carole Geiss of Southold, who sued the Animal Welfare League in 2002. The letter, addressed to the animal welfare group RSVP in Riverhead, asked RSVP to submit a bid to run the shelter. Ms. Geiss said in the letter that she had sent it at the urging of Town Board member Vincent Orlando.

Mr. Orlando and other members of the board said that they were shocked by the letter, and had no idea it existed until Mr. Edelson read it to them.

Mr. Orlando said that Ms. Geiss, who frequently attends town board work sessions, had approached him several months ago at a work session after a board discussion of the shelter, and said that she would give him the names of other organizations that could run the shelter.

He said that he had likely said no more than “ok” during a casual conversation at the work session, but had no idea that Ms. Geiss had taken his response as an indication that she had the town’s blessing to solicit bids for management of the shelter.

The  request for proposals was issued last Thursday, and potential bidders have until Feb. 24 to submit their proposals. Mr. Russell said that the short time frame should indicate to the shelter’s supporters that the town does not believe it will find any other agency that can do the work that the League does.

“If nothing else it shows taxpayers that there is no one else better to run the shelter,” he said. “We have to show taxpayers we’re exercising due diligence.”

Mr. Russell urged the League’s supporters to press the League to prepare a counteroffer to the town’s proposed contract, in the interest of keeping negotiations moving forward. He said that he is unable to talk to the League’s Executive Director, Gillian Wood, about the contract because only the League’s attorney, Pamela Mann of Manhattan, is authorized to speak on their behalf about contract issues.

Mr. Russell told the crowd that he would like to hold a public meeting next week to go over the town’s proposed contract line-by-line with the public. He said that he would make details of that meeting public after he receives legal advice on how to present the contract publicly without disrupting negotiations, which are typically held in closed sessions.

“I can see my attorney rolling his eyes,” he said.

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