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The Rockland County legislature is expected to give the green light to Rockland Green’s motion to ask the State of NY to amend its bylaws
By Tina Traster
The Rockland County legislature is expected Tuesday to give the green light to a request by Rockland Green (the former Rockland County Solid Waste Management Authority) to allow the agency to seek the New York state legislature to introduce “Home Rule” legislation that would give the agency the power to amend its charter. The agency wants to “expand the agency’s purposes, powers and responsibilities” to include animal husbandry services to potentially bring Hi-Tor Animal Shelter of Pomona under its umbrella.
On April 7, two Rockland County legislative committees unanimously approved the agency’s motion, but lawmakers Lon Hofstein and Alden Wolfe requested more information, specifically financial projections, employment, and specific data on how Rockland Green is transforming the shelter into its multitude of features would focus on recycling and waste.
In addition to a handful of lawmakers seeking more information about the plan unveiled by Howard Phillips, Rockland Green chairman who is also Haverstraw Town Supervisor, Hi-Tor board members, staff, volunteers and residents want more than just that rough answers to the The Authority’s desire to possibly take over the shelter.
But those looking for answers will have to wait. According to multiple reports, Phillips has urged lawmakers to proceed with a vote Tuesday to allow state officials to consider the agency’s request before the state’s Legislative Session ends in early June. The measure is expected to be passed.
Rockland Green needs Albany’s approval to amend its articles of association before the matter is re-submitted to the Legislature for consideration.
“We are not voting to allow Rockland Green to acquire Hi-Tor,” Hofstein said. “We’re just giving him permission to ask the state for permission to change his charter.”
Some say this is a chicken and egg puzzle.
“Running an emergency shelter with government employees cannot be more effective than running it privately,” said Orangetown Supervisor Teresa Kenny
Many officials, including County Executive Ed Day, say it doesn’t make sense to consider the implications or specifics of an acquisition plan until Rockland Green receives its bylaw amendment. But others wonder how lawmakers and state officials can make a decision without anything other than a sparse explanation of Rockland Green’s potential plan.
The Rockland Green Board of Directors consists of the five City Superintendents, two Mayors, eight Borough Councilors and two representatives from the Borough Council Office. Six of the eight district MPs who sit on the Rockland Green board of directors are also sponsors and co-sponsors of proposed charter amendment legislation. They are: Jay Hood, Sr., Aney Paul, Aron Wieder, Douglas Jobson, Philip Soskin and Lon Hofstein.
In 2021, the city of Orangetown terminated its agreement with the county’s only no-kill shelter, though it agreed to pay nearly $40,000 for its 2020 contract. Dissatisfied with Hi-Tor, the city signed an agreement with the Hudson Valley Humane Society to deal with their stray dogs, but not cats or other animals.
Now, Orangetown chief Teresa Kenny has raised concerns about Rockland Green’s signal to explore a takeover.
“I recently learned that the move to have Rockland Green take over the animal shelter services in Rockland is moving forward sooner rather than later,” Kenny said. “I have expressed my concern that Orangetown residents are being forced to let Rockland Green take our dogs away. We understand the need for a new shelter in Rockland and expect to pay our share. However, I do not believe that Rockland County residents should be charged with charging our county tax bill for these services when we are extremely satisfied with our current provider, the Hudson Valley Humane Society, on both cost and service levels are. ”
Kenny says she is concerned that Rockland Green has yet to conduct a cost analysis, but believes a study would show that “running a shelter with government employees cannot be more effective than running it privately.”
It’s also unclear what role the Hi-Tor board would play if control of the shelter passed to Rockland Green, but some officials said it’s been suggested that one possibility might be for the board to be advisory keeps role. The board members opposed this proposal.
Nearly 50 residents attended Rockland Green’s monthly open meeting at Clarkstown City Hall last Thursday to seek answers to questions.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” said Arlene Kahn of Pomona. “The community has questions. What is your intention? Will you hire and fire employees? They need to have a community ‘question and answer’ meeting.”
Phillips replied, “We’re not there yet.” Kahn replied, “Where are you?”
It’s unclear when questions will be answered, but ahead of the public comment session, Phillips said: “All we’re doing today is listening to your concerns. We’ll get in touch with you at a later date.”
What Phillips has said to the legislature, and has said widely on WRCR and in public, is that managing Rockland Green is an “option” or “alternative” to operating what he and some other city officials call mismanaged animal shelters describe. Pressed for a more in-depth projection by county lawmakers, he estimated that Rockland Green would hire between three and five professionals. Rockland Green has no experience managing animal shelters.
At least one resident at the Rockland Green meeting suggested that the district hire an independent consultant to examine Hi-Tor’s strengths and weaknesses and recommend a way forward.
Phillips and Supervisor George Hoehmann have been vocal critics of Hi-Tor for several years and have made no secret of questioning the value of their cities’ contributions to the shelter’s operations. In 2017, Rockland County negotiated a five-year deal with the cities to raise taxpayer money to support Hi-Tor. While cities had previously contributed to the shelter, the new treaty sometimes tripled those allocations — still a fairly small part of taxpayers’ bills. The current contract expires at the end of this year.
However, there is a widespread belief among officials that Hi-Tor is unable to handle its affairs, and as the county prepares to build an $8.3 million emergency shelter, changes are needed. Day last October during a “groundbreaking” ceremony said construction was expected to begin this spring, but that estimate has been pushed back to the fall due to delays in bidding.
Phillips says Hi-Tor has had its “hills and valleys,” which is undeniable, but two shelter board members and Lindsay Carpenter, Hi-Tor’s new director, testified to Rockland Green that the shelter is a positive turn has taken and is active is in good standing. Apart from being financially solvent, operations are running smoothly and the Board plans to transition into an entity that will finally ease the burden that has been at the root of much of the disagreement that has arisen played publicly in the last five years.
“No one at Rockland Green will commit their time in the way our board and volunteers are doing now,” Carpenter said at the Rockland Green meeting. “Don’t take the humanity out of Hi-Tor.”
Rockland Green’s effort to acquire Hi-Tor has been in the works for more than a year. Hi-Tor board members are outraged that Rockland Green has never approached the board to discuss his role in the future of the shelter. Hi-Tor, a not-for-profit organization founded 50 years ago, is an independent entity but housed within a county facility. Funding for the new shelter includes state and county grants, as well as money raised through Hi-Tor’s fundraising efforts.
“I don’t understand how Rockland Green can just step in without any animal care experience,” said Hi-Tor Board Member Helen Allen. “We have officials spreading a false narrative about Hi-Tor. But neither Rockland Green nor any of the wardens came and sat down with us to talk. That is reprehensible.”
Allen added, “We deserve the right to lead the new shelter into the future.”
In recent months, Hi-Tor has reorganized its board of directors, and according to DiBernardo, the organization is more solvent and stable than ever, with a projected surplus of $156,596 in 2021. The board chairman also signaled that the organization has started to do so , to receive some significant donations in the last few weeks.
The horrible state of the shelter has been at the center of much of Hi-Tor’s recent conflict. When CEO Debbie DiBernardo took over the reins five years ago, she and many board members were in lockstep in moving the shelter in a no-kill direction. Residents and donors widely praised the shelter for advancing these principles, but it placed a logistical burden on staff, volunteers and board members as more stray and rescued animals needed to be housed. At times, the shelter population grew to over 450 animals. Today the shelter has fewer than 200 animals.
Before Dibernardo took over the shelter, it was low-kill. When DiBernardo took over, it became no-kill. Now only very sick animals are euthanized, DiBernardo said.
How many animals should be taken in – and whether that priority should be dogs or cats – became the subject of wars of extermination at the shelter, dividing board members and angering some volunteers. Some board members who wanted to reduce cat admissions have since resigned, but for several years there has been constant tension within the ranks over reducing the number of animals in the shelter. These disagreements spilled onto social media, where for a while disaffected volunteers waged an online war against the shelter.
“Every step forward was matched by three steps back with unfounded attacks on social media by some disgruntled volunteers,” DiBernardo said.
At least a handful of these volunteers also undertook a vigorous email and visitation campaign with city supervisors. In their communications, they accused corruption and financial embezzlement at the shelter. This prompted the office of Clarkstown Supervisor George Hoehmann to ask District Attorney Thomas Walsh to investigate the allegations. DiBernardo faces criminal charges for allegedly filing false documents regarding the adoption of 17 kittens in 2020, but her attorney has filed motions in Rockland County District Court that prosecutors provided the grand jury with inaccurate and misleading information. He has moved to have the case dismissed, saying the omission of significant evidence resulted in a misguided prosecution.
Prosecutors have told RCBJ that they are not commenting on ongoing cases.