The Riverhead town board was all smiles Tuesday night as they voted unanimously to privatize the municipal animal shelter.
After weeks of concerns raised by residents over lack of staffing and conditions at the shelter, the board entered into a three-year contract with the North Fork Animal Welfare League to manage the facility.
Councilman John Dunleavy thanked Supervisor Sean Walter and Councilman Jim Wooten for negotiating the contract. "The animals of this town will be safely kept from now on with the North Fork Animal Welfare League," he said.
"Can I dance now, about the animal shelter?" Walter asked.
Councilman George Gabrielsen said it was a "very happy day in Riverhead."
Wooten agreed and said he, "of course," supported the resolution. "It's been a long time coming. It's good thing for the animal kingdom."
Wooten added that he had spoken with Denise Lucas, whose Riverhead Move the Animal Shelter foundation has been working toward constructing a new facility and relocating the shelter. Lucas, he said, told him that an alliance with the NFAWL would help toward getting her mission accomplished.
"It's a good fit all around," Wooten said.
Dunleavy said the shelter would now take other animals, including livestock, rodents, and snakes. "It will truly be an animal shelter," he said.
Remembering former Councilman Jim Lull, who died on Sunday, Walter said he couldn't help but believe Lull had been somehow behind the scenes and would be happy to see his long-time vision materialize.
After the vote, Walter addressed animal advocate Rex Farr, who has long advocated privatization of the shelter. "Rex, can you believe we got here? Yes!" he said, pumping his fists into the air.
Farr and his wife Connie stepped up to the podium to address the board. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," Farr said. "This is a win-win. Merry Christmas."
"It will be a Merry Christmas for the animals," Wooten said.
Shelter volunteer and animal advocate Vince Taldone said the news was heartening.
"I've seen firsthand how the North Fork Animal Welfare League's dedicated staff and volunteers make the Southold shelter an efficient, kind and compassionate place where helpless, abandoned animals find the care they deserve. Southold residents can be very proud of their shelter and I am confident that soon Riverhead residents will be proud of ours, too," he said.
"I thank all the Riverhead shelter staff, volunteers and advocates for never giving up on the vulnerable animals in our shelter," Taldone added. "I am also thankful that despite tough fiscal times, my town board members have managed to find a way to provide greatly improved care and in the most efficient way that I can imagine. Bravo."
The town will enter into a three-year contract, for $223,500, per year; the NFAWL will provide full services at the shelter.
The NFAWL will take over all animal control functions. Riverhead Town will provide maintenance to the building, Wooten said.
The contract will begin on March 1, Walter said, and will extend for three years, "and hopefully, thereafter," he said. "I'm very, very happy. we've been working on this for a long time. I'm just happy to see it come to fruition."
The North Fork Animal Welfare League, which has run the Town of Southold Animal Shelter since 1980, will extend their operations and begin management of the Riverhead facility, according to the new contract.
President of the North Fork Animal Welfare League Richard Radoccia said, "We could not be more excited. We look forward to bringing the same nurturing care to Riverhead that we have extended to the animal community in Southold."
The North Fork Animal Welfare League was formed in 1963 and is a not-for-profit organization committed to the prevention of cruelty to animals and to extend humane education.
"We are ready and raring to go," Radoccia said. "The New Year will bring a new level of care for the animals of Riverhead."
Walter added, "Our shelter has long been the source of controversy and good people have argued for many years about what its future should look like. Our first responsibility has always been to provide animals with the best care we can and I am convinced that this agreement will do that. Today, we turn the page and make a fresh start and this is happy news for animal lovers everywhere," he said.
Wooten, the town board's shelter liaison and an animal activist, said, "We have worked at this long and hard and it feels so good to finally turn the corner and begin a new era in providing the proper care for the animals in our charge." He added, "This is a great day for Riverhead."
In recent weeks, Wooten has suggested privatizing the shelter could be the solution to staffing and other concerns.
The shelter was short-staffed after an animal control officer was mauled by a pit bull; the board voted to hire three-part time kennel attendants and Wooten said further options included hiring a director or privatizing.
On Tuesday, Taldone added, "This is the best Christmas gift I could have gotten."