Step forward for proposed new animal control agency on Big Island
February 8, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
Despite concerns about staffing and other issues, a proposed new government agency to handle animal control services in Hawai‘i County received a favorable recommendation by the Hawai‘i County Council.
Bill 22 was presented by Council chairperson Heather Kimball and councilmember Cindy Evans on Tuesday afternoon during the Government Operation and External Affairs Committee meeting.
Kimball said the bill would create a new “Animal Control and Protection Agency.” It also would amend portions of Chapter 4, county code that has references to the Hawai‘i Island Humane Society. The nonprofit organization had been responsible for the county’s animal control services for several years until it decided not to submit a bid to renew its contract in 2020.
Animal Control is currently being run as a pilot project under the Hawai‘i Police Department, with a current annual budget of approximately $3.4 million. Hawai‘i Police Maj. Aimee Wana, who oversees the program, told the council on Tuesday that even with the creation of the agency, she expects there will be an overlap with the police department depending on the types of calls for service.
“The biggest change will be who’s administrating it,” Wana said.
One of the primary tasks of the Animal Control and Protection Agency is to examine the issues noted in the existing laws, updating and revising existing ordinances, enforcing the laws and ordinances in relation to animals, investigating cruelty and neglect cases, and providing education to the public.
Wana said a few important tasks ahead include: updating existing laws, increasing community education and working to make low cost spay and neuter options available.
The bill is set to go before the County Council for a first reading at its Feb. 21 meeting. If it passes, County Managing Director Lee Lord told the council the first step would be to hire an administrator for the agency by April 1.
The administrator would be responsible for managing county pounds and hiring staff. Kimball said the agency would allow the administrator to enter into agreements for collaborations to carry out mandates of the agency, as well as create relationships with other partners to provide more services.
During the discussion about the bill, some councilmembers had concerns about staffing. Currently, employees filling civil service positions are under a short-term contract that ends in 2024. County officials are hopeful that once the agency is created it will attract more long-term candidates.
“There’s a group waiting to be hired once the agency is online,” Lord said. “We’re cautious but hopeful to have full staff when we need them.”
Only 15 of the 40 positions budgeted for the animal control services program are currently filled. The police department has assigned two additional personnel to temporarily assist in managing the Animal Control project. These positions — a police major and a police lieutenant — are funded through the police department.
About a dozen people testified on the bill, with nearly all expressing their support of the proposed legislation.
One testifier applauded the council for considering the bill, but said it has to be a first step in a total overhaul of the way animal control has done business: “It’s past due that animal control services live up to its name. It’s really been out-of-control services.”
Timothy Rowan testified on behalf of himself and his Black Sands Beach community located in lower Puna. He supported a new agency that he thinks would alleviate some of the pressure on the police department.
“This might be the biggest problem in our community as animal attacks on people and pets seems to be on the rise,” Rowan said. “Many elderly residents have lost pet companions to vicious dog and cat attacks. I myself am a victim to a vicious dog attack that nearly killed my mini pincher. Three people had to pull the dog off.”
Rowan said he now carries pepper spray and an umbrella to keep dogs away when he is walking outside. He also furnishes and donates pepper spray to other individuals in the community.
Kristen Alice, spokesperson for Hope Services Hawai‘i, an agency that assists the homeless find affordable housing, said animals are the unheard victims to the housing crisis.
When people get priced out of their homes or landlords choose not to allow pets, Alice said, it forces people to give up their animals.
“No one should have to choose between housing and risking the euthanizing of your best friend or abandoning them or giving them up,” she said.
Alice added that police shouldn’t have the burden of animal control.
While testifiers were concerned about the lack of foundation for the agency through the county’s Chapter 4 code, which defines the duties of animal control, Kimball assured colleagues and the community that they intend to continue to look at this and think there’s room for an advisory committee.
But she said they want to be careful not to set something up that would require they abide by open meeting laws because that would mean involvement of County Corps Council and a secretary.
“We want to be thoughtful about the resources that might be needed for a brand new agency,” Kimball said.
That’s not to say the public won’t have an opportunity to follow the details of what’s happening with the creation of the agency as new proposed rules to Chapter 4 will require a public discussion by the council.
“We’re welcome to outside advice,” Lord said. “There’s going to be changes to the document as we bring this agency online.”
Council Member Holeka Inaba said he could see how some might think this bill is “putting the cart before the horse. … If we’re going to make this transition, now is the time. We can tackle Chapter 4 as we see fit.”
Wana said there are many things necessary to make this proposed agency successful in helping the island’s animals.
“Animal Control is the constant target of public misconception and misinformation,” Wana said. “The single most effective way to support those of us doing the work is to share accurate information. Additionally, animal owners can start with keeping their own animals contained, licensed, microchipped, altered (sterilized) and cared for in accordance with the laws.”
Wana said infrastructure for the Animal Control services is a must noting gaps of service in South Kohala, North Kohala, Hāmākua and in the Pāhala/Hawaiian Ocean View Estates areas. While staff does respond to these areas regularly, Wana said employees are facing longer drive times between calls to drop off animals as the county does not have any shelter facilities in these areas.
Along with building more infrastructure, Wana said the current shelters need improvements. The shelter in East Hawai‘i was built in 1978, and the West Hawai‘i shelter was first built in 1974. Both facilities, Wana said, need repairs, especially to safely house dangerous animals to ensure the safety of both the animal and staff members.