Staten Island Advance, September 3, 1997
Animal advocates get referendum on ballot
by Kerry Murtha
Advance Staff Writer
A grass-roots campaign, which included thousands of Staten Islanders, has succeeded in getting a referendum on the upcoming election ballot that would dramatically change how animal care and control is handled in New York City.
Organizers filed approximately 75,000 signatures with the City Clerk's offfice yesterday, according to animal advocate Gary Kaskel, who helped organize the four month campaign.
But officials from the mayor's office say they question the validity of the signatures as well as the legality of placing such a subject on the November ballot.
Fifty thousand valid petitions are required for a referendum.
Patty Pavis, of Dongan Hills [Staten Island], said she had worked personally with five or six local advocates to collect about 3,500 signatures.
Kaskel estimates that approximately 9,000 signatures in all came from concerned Islanders.
Responding to what they describe as "callous indifference," by municipal government to the welfare of animals, advocates are asking voters to amend the New York City Charter to create a Department of Animal Affairs.
According to the proposed law, the newly created department will "care for lost, stray and injured animals, implement and maintain an animal control operation and shelter system, facilitate horse licensing, promote humane education, and, except as provided by law, perform all those functions and operations that relate to the affairs and welfare of animals."
Currently, the Center for Animal Care and Control (CACC), a not-for profit agency created by the city, holds a contract with the Department of Health to handle animal rescue services throughout the five boroughs.
The CACC's Island center is located in Charleston.
However, the agency, which picked up the contract in 1995 from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), has come under a flurry of criticism since an eight-month City Council investigation released earlier this year concluded that the agency was not doing enough to control the city's animal population.
The investigation found that around 43,000 of the 65,000 animals it takes in each year are euthanized.
City officials point out, however, that the CACC inherited a poorly run system from the ASPCA and has actually increased the animal adoption rate since it took over.
Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro yesterday attributed further improvements at the CACC to the leadership of Marilyn Haggerty-Blohm, the former chief of staff to Borough President Guy V. Molinari who was appointed interim executive director of the organization in June.
Nevertheless, animal advocaes argue that a new centralized agency could better spend the $4.5 million the CACC currently receives from the city.
Those efforts would include daily animal transport vehicles to patrol each of the five boroughs for lost, stray and abandoned animals, stringent standards of animal treatment and a mandatory spay and neuter program.
The law also calls for a department commissioner with at least five years' top-level experience at a humane organization.
Kaskel admits that while an undefined amount of additional funding would be required to run the new agency, proactive steps could be taken to increase its coffers.
"There are 250,000 unlicensed dogs in this city," he said. "If we could collect the $15 fee from each of these owners, it would amount to at least $3 million."
In addition, Kaskel predicts that expenditures will go down once the stray animal population is reduced.
The petitions are now being turned over to the Board of Elections, according to Naomi Bernstein, spokeswoman for the Board of Elections.
She said the board has 10 days to verify that each signature represents a registered New York City voter.
Aside from the signatures, however, Mastro said yesterday that the city's Corporation Counsel has challenged the legality of placing such a subject on the ballot, an issue he said the Board of Elections will also need to review.