Wallingford council eyes animal shelter trust fund management

reporter photo

WALLINGFORD — One conclusion was clear by the end of Tuesday’s Town Council ordinance committee meeting — the council has no way to force through an expenditure if the mayor won’t sign off on it.

The issue before the council’s ordinance committee, which is made up of all council members, was two distinct but interwoven topics.

One is public complaints about lack of air conditioning in the town’s animal shelter. 

The controversy over conditions at the shelter began in June during a regular Town Council meeting.

Councilor Gina Morgenstein criticized the shelter conditions as being “inhumane” due to the lack of air conditioning and staffing shortages.

An animal control officer, Parris Gibbs, has since been hired. Gibbs could not be reached Wednesday for comment about the air conditioning at the Pent Road facility.

The other topic is establishing joint oversight between the mayor and the Town Council of an animal control trust fund.

Right now, the mayor has control over how funds are spent, which was decided by a vote of the council when the fund was established in 1993.

Then Dog Warden Shirley Gianotti had requested that the town establish a procedure to accept donations to the animal shelter.

Both principal donations and accumulated interest may be spent from the fund.

The trust fund currently has approximately $737,000, most of which came from a $691,980 donation from the estate of Susan Juul in 2007.

Juul, who died in November 2004, stated in the terms of her will that she intended the money be used for “the benefit of the Wallingford Animal Shelter, for the purpose of improving and maintaining the health and well-being of the animals, cats and dogs alike, and for the purpose of improving the physical structures and buildings for the benefit of the animals housed therein,” according to past Record-Journal reporting.

Ideas for oversight

Councilors discussed at their July 13 meeting whether that money could be used to improve the air conditioning at the shelter, along with other issues at the building, such as broken windows and lack of hot water in the washing machine.

Councilor Vincent Testa made the original suggestion to give the council and the mayor joint oversight of fund.

“It’s been argued and discussed, and probably not often disagreed with, that improvements to the shelter could conceivably come under the auspices of the [trust fund],” Testa said.

Councilor Craig Fishbein suggested during Tuesday’s meeting that the town ordinance on reserve accounts be amended to include a subdivision for the trust fund.

Under his plan, the council would receive notice when an emergency expenditure request from the trust fund is made to the mayor, who would respond within seven days to the council.

Non-emergency requests would be in writing. The council would get notice within 48 hours of the request to the mayor, who then would respond to the council within seven days.

If the council chooses to, it can make the request a council agenda item.

Town Corporation Counsel Janis M. Small said that she had concerns about whether council can determine how many days the mayor has to respond, saying it’s “not normal” to automatically fulfill the requests of town departments.

“I do think there’s nothing inappropriate about the administration of this fund requiring notice,” she said, “whether it be notice that both when the request is made, and when the request is acted upon or whatever, however you recorded it. I think that’s perfectly fine.”

Dollar limit, newcommission

The council discussed various ways that would allow them to approve expenditures from the trust fund, but Small explained that the council is a legislative body, which doesn’t have the same authority as the mayor’s office to approve spending, except at budget time.

Small said that the council could make changes to the ordinance as Fishbein suggested to address oversight of the fund, such as setting a dollar limit as to what doesn’t have to come to the council, by category of expense or a combination of those.

“You could put in those layers of when and how the council has a say in it, however you wish to do that,” she said.

Councilor Joe Marrone also reiterated his suggestion Tuesday on forming an animal welfare commission, tentatively of five people, to advise the Town Council on animal shelter issues and recommend expenditures.

The air conditioning system won’t be addressed without Mayor William W. Dickinson Jr.’s willingness to go along with it, he said.

“There’s still the same Catch-22,” Marrone said, “that if the administration was absolutely dead set against this idea, it’s not going to happen, because they ultimately control the facility.”

Dickinson, who did not attend the meeting, has said he wants to wait until he has a chance to talk to Gibbs, the new animal control officer, before making any decisions about the shelter’s air conditioning system.

There is precedent for how Wallingford officials feel the money in the fund should be spent.

In 2009, the Town Council attempted to spend accumulated interest on hand from the trust to balance Animal Control department’s general operating budget.

Then Animal Control Officer Lisa Seyler said at the time she didn’t believe that Juul intended the money to finance the department, but rather to provide for the “above and beyond.”

Councilors absent

Three councilors were absent from Tuesday’s meeting, including Chris Shortell, who’s the ordinance committee chairman, Tom Laffin and Jason Zandri.

Council Chairman Vincent Cervoni led the meeting in Shortell’s absence. Cervoni asked before the standard moment of silence, in public session, that Zandri be kept in everyone’s thoughts as he was “facing some challenges.”

Cervoni said Wednesday that Zandri is “dealing with some health issues, and I have reason to believe that he’s going to be fine.”

Zandri could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

LTakores@record-journal.com203-317-2212Twitter: @LCTakores

Wallingford's animal shelter, June 2021. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal
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