Animal Welfare Center Reaches Impasse with Ag Department on Contract

Moises Carmona of the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center (Susan Ellis photo).
Moises Carmona of the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center (Susan Ellis photo).

Last weekend the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center sent out a statement informing the public that its contract for animal control with the V.I. Government had expired and, due to nonpayment, they would no longer pick up stray or injured animals. On Tuesday morning, the center received a call about an injured cat on a roadside but told the caller they couldn’t help.

Fortunately for the feline, a police officer carried it to the Animal Welfare Center where Dr. Michelle Mehalick, AWC veterinarian, cleaned and treated the animal and hooked it up to an IV of pain medication and antibiotics. As of Tuesday afternoon, the cat was resting peacefully.

The AWC contract, as in past years, called for picking up, feeding and housing stray animals, capturing any running at large, quarantining bite cases, investigating animal cruelty, finding homes for animals, issuing dog licenses and humane education.

“The 2015 contract allocated only one-quarter of the projected cost to carry out these duties,” the release stated.

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The contract is for $125,000 a year to care for approximately 1,200 stray animals. According to the release, the actual cost is around $485,000 and the government is more than a year late on the payment.

In addition to 1,200 stray animals, the St. Croix shelter cares for another 1,200 or so animals annually that are surrendered by their owners. It costs an average of $10 a day to care for each of these animals and some may live there for months at a time.

According to Mehalick, around 45-50 percent of the strays leave the shelter alive.

“The government provides us just enough to round them up and kill them but not enough to care for them,” she said.

Humane education was another part of the animal shelter’s contract with the government and the generous donor who sponsored the $70,000 program recently left St. Croix, so the program is inactive.

Agriculture Commissioner Carlos Robles admits “the process is cumbersome” and that the shelter is owed $155,750, but the Office of Management and Budget won’t release the payment without a new contract.

“We are at an impasse. To cut a check, we have to have a contract,” he said, adding that a new contract was emailed to the Animal Welfare Center on Aug. 8 and “they have refused to sign.”

According to Robles, the funding comes from the V.I. Government’s Miscellaneous Fund and the allocation is not guaranteed “even though it’s appropriated, unless funds come in to back it up.” Many of the territory’s nonprofit organizations are funded under the Miscellaneous section of the budget.

To perform the duties specified in the contract, and because there was no animal control warden from the Department of Agriculture or the V.I. Police Department, a staff person from the shelter was assigned those duties. As the shelter’s animal control officer, Moises Carmona spent five or six hours a day collecting animals in addition to his other duties at the center.

However, without peace officer status, he was unable to perform the crucial duties such as investigating or prosecuting cases of animal cruelty, issuing citations or even enforcing fee payment.

Mehalick said there was a meeting of stakeholders from all three islands earlier this year with Randy Knight of the Governor’s Office, Robles, Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and members of VIPD to discuss the needs and abilities of the territory’s animal protection agencies including the lack of animal control wardens and the cost to the nonprofit organizations.

“It is really hard to do this,” Mehalick said. “We need the community and government to understand this. It is a government function – animal control.”

When no changes were made after the meeting, the shelter decided not to sign a new contract.

Beth Moss, AWC board president, said the V.I. Government contract stipulates quarterly payment but funds are usually one to two years late. Currently the allocation is more than a year and a half behind.

According to Moss, the shelter will agree to a contract to perform fewer duties for the same funding. Ideally, Agriculture could pick up and house animals and Animal Welfare Center could focus on caring for the 1,200 owner surrendered animals.

Robles said his department cannot take on the role of animal control.

“Their services are needed. I don’t have the manpower or have a place to keep dogs,” he said. “They have been a valuable ally over the years.”

While the St. Croix animal shelter struggles to perform its government contract, the facility is in need of major repairs and there’s no funding for that. The animal pens are rusted and the roofs leak. Wood beams are rotten and the windbreak to protect the animals from a storm would be blown away by a strong storm.

The staff has created new ways to increase revenue. Mehalick is providing basic veterinary services, including spay/neuter surgeries, and a second flea market is due to open soon.

“We have to make payroll,” Moss said. “And we’re trying to be more self-sufficient.”

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