Tazewell, Woodford counties looking into possibly combining their animal control operations
Officials from Tazewell and Woodford counties are exploring an intergovernmental agreement to share animal control services.
The potential merger comes after a March incident that prompted Woodford County to fire its former animal control administrator. The county is now facing a federal lawsuitafter a kitten was euthanized for rabies testing in an alleged violation of state law.
“Woodford County itself does not have a lot in place as what I refer to as animal control infrastructure: a dedicated facility and staff,” said Woodford County board member Blake Parsons, who chairs the county’s public safety committee.
“We have always contracted out our animal control to various private providers, and now with the recent happenings of one of those providers where he was dismissed, we are now looking to retool as much as possible, if you will.”
Parsons said his long-term goal is to see Woodford County develop its own animal control program.
“But that can't be all done in one fell swoop. So it'll take time to bring that program up to speed and put everything and all the personnel in place,” Parsons said. “We currently do have some interim agreements in place with a provider as well as with a licensed veterinarian, which is required by state statute.
“We figured in order to kind of get more established in the way of an animal control program, it could be beneficial for the county to reach out to surrounding counties who have existing animal control programs that we could pull ideas from and possibly work together on for a period of time to become more established.”
Tazewell County Animal Control director Libby Aeschleman said discussions about joining forces are still very preliminary. She said Woodford County Board Member Tim Worner initially approached her about the idea, wanting to learn about Tazewell’s shelter, equipment and processes.
“At first, it was just an introduction to possibly just providing some guidance upon them expanding what they're doing now and kind of rerouting how that process works,” Aeschleman said. “So he viewed our facility and our trucks and our equipment, and had a lot of questions about our budget, which is all public information. We were able to just kind of talk about how the facility works and the do’s and don’ts and what is working for us that's been successful, and also kind of what the hardships are.”
“We were able to just kind of talk about how the facility works and the do’s and don’ts and what is working for us that's been successful, and also kind of what the hardships are.”Libby Aeschleman, Tazewell County Animal Control director
Aeschleman said the initial outreach progressed into larger conversations toward a possible agreement between the counties. She said her intent would not be about a permanent takeover of Woodford County services, but merely to provide expertise, assistance and guidance.
“They just don't have the answers as to everything from licensing to what kind of kennels do we need?" she said. "How many kennels do we need? What should we expect from the public? What do we need to do for our animal control officers? How many on call officers do we need? Those type of questions, they just don't have somebody in the field right now that can answer those things. So it's been more trial and error, which obviously leads to finding out things the hard way.”
Parsons said he believes a joint operation would give Woodford County some time to pursue its own animal control infrastructure.
“Those are going to be things like a dedicated facility where you can have office space and house animals and things like that,” he said. “There's vehicles that go along with that, and then there's staffing and also having all the connections to adoption facilities and veterinarian clinics and all the things that go along with animal control. So the impetus for the partnership – or the proposed intergovernmental agreement – would be to establish that relationship with a county like Tazewell to kind of get the ball rolling.”
Framework for future deals?
Tazewell County Board Chairman David Zimmerman said the notion of combining the two counties services is not just a whim, and could set a precedent for other joint operations.
“It's very serious. We're in discussions right now and we're kind of working out some of the details (but) I think it's a wonderful idea,” Zimmerman said. “If we can do some more things regionally, I would love to work with Peoria County (or) Woodford County on areas where it makes sense that we can combine different offices. So we'll explore any option that comes before us.”
Zimmerman said he believes an animal control agreement would be mutually beneficial.
“I think you get efficiencies there. You don't necessarily need multiple buildings. We always have somebody on call, and so you could have fewer employees to do call-outs,” he said. “Of course (Woodford) is a larger territory. But I think you have just the combined efficiencies that you get with one facility, although I think the plan is to have a facility in Woodford County also, just because of the drive time and different things like that.”
“This is just another step in trying to make that system work best for our stakeholders, and I think that this might be a jumping off point for some other opportunities.”Chuck Nagel, Woodford County board chairman
Woodford County Board Chairman Chuck Nagel shares Zimmerman's optimism about the possibility.
“It looks to be a great situation for both counties, in more of, I guess, a merger-type situation,” Nagel said. “There are still certain things, because of the geographics of Tazewell and Woodford, that we would have to supply, such as housing of the animals (and) maybe also a warden that is stationed satellite somewhere in Woodford County, and so on. But we're very encouraged on the basis of it, just to be able to do this type of intergovernmental agreement with Tazewell.”
Nagel said that in his five years on the board, Woodford County has consistently tried to improve its animal control services.
“The biggest benefit to us is the knowledge and experience that they have over in Tazewell,” he said. “While we've done our best in Woodford, we probably have some things that we can sharpen in the administration of it. We might be able to glean some good ideas from them and be able to work together with them so we can garner some experience.
“This is just another step in trying to make that system work best for our stakeholders, and I think that this might be a jumping off point for some other opportunities. Of course, it translates into needing less money from our residents to support this. So we'll see, but I think the possibility is there.”
What happens next?
Parson said his main goal in the possible merger is to provide better services for residents.
“We're not looking at it through the lens of any financial benefits; we're looking at it through the lens of experience in order to develop our program," he said. "There's a lot that goes to animal control. It's not – I don't want to use the word ‘dog catcher;’ that's not what animal control is about. It's about preventing the spread of rabies."
“I think taking these steps to further the goal of bringing Woodford County Animal Control more under the under the roof of Woodford County and not third-party contracting out would let everybody know, ‘hey, we're really evaluating this. We're taking it seriously.’”Blake Parsons, Woodford County board member
“I think taking these steps to further the goal of bringing Woodford County Animal Control more under the under the roof of Woodford County and not third-party contracting out would let everybody know, ‘hey, we're really evaluating this. We're taking it seriously.’ We're trying to right the wrongs of the past and have a little bit more accountability in place.”
Aeschleman said she doesn’t see the potential combination of services placing an unnecessary burden on Tazewell County.
“There won't be any situation where Tazewell County is taking in Woodford County animals; we don't have any plans to for animals to be going back and forth across jurisdictional lines,” Aeschleman said. "So that shouldn't add to the stress the shelter here in Tazewell County is already feeling."
“I don't want Woodford County residents to be confused and thinking that they need to be bringing strays and their pets here. The long term goal is for Woodford County to have their own facility and that they can get that up and running permanently.”
Aeschleman said talks toward finalizing an agreement between the continues are ongoing.
“Ideally, over the next few months we will have some more meetings and have some more discussion about what this will look like and hopefully come to at least a preliminary agreement and possibly do a trial,” she said. “The start of our budget would be Dec. 1, which would mean if we were to have this up and running by next year, we would have to come to some sort of agreement before then to get it into our budget and they can kind of start financially planning on their end as well. But it does seem that we'll have to do some sort of trial run first, whether that be a one-year or two or three-year contract, to make sure that this works well on both sides.”
Parsons said he’d prefer to see something completed as soon as possible.
“Hopefully in the next 30-40 days, we’ll get some something on paper,” he said. “If we can get something established within the next couple of months that is what I would like to see. But you know, sometimes when it comes to government, it doesn't move as fast as we'd like it to see.”