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Allegations Unleashed at Town of Hempstead Board Meeting

Murray: Independent Rescue Groups Call Shelter ‘Top Notch’

As snow gently fell over the Town of Hempstead, a firestorm of epic proportions erupted during the town board meeting at the Nathan L.H. Bennett Pavilion on Tuesday, Jan. 25. In a united front, animal activists appeared in droves to address the board about the alleged poor conditions at Town of Hempstead Animal Shelter in Wantagh.

In December of 2010, Anton Newspapers reported shelter volunteers Diane Madden of East Meadow, Lucille DeFina of Merrick, and Frances Lucivero-Pelletier of Levittown alleged that they were banned from the shelter since late October of 2010 after making claims of animal abuse and neglect at the shelter. After the Dec. 7, 2010, town board meeting, the three women filed a lawsuit against the Town of Hempstead, Kate Murray, Bruce Hallbert, Jill Schuster, Patricia Horan, Vincent Napoli, Joanne Miranda, Russel Davis, and Ashley Sheridan.

At the Jan. 25 meeting, one of the first citizens to address the board was Derek Donnelly of Merrick. Donnelly, a spokesperson for animal activist group Hope for Hempstead, said the group formed as a result of volunteers and rescuers being banned last year from working at the shelter. In a Jan. 24 phone interview with Anton Newspapers, Donnelly purported that volunteers were banned by the town for being too outspoken about the conditions of the shelter. “They [volunteers] were complaining about the conditions of the shelter. Cruelty and abuse is happening and neglect is happening,” Donnelly said.

At the town meeting, Donnelly blasted Town Supervisor Kate Murray and the board for their response to the alleged situation. “If a do-gooder who is volunteering to save the taxpayer money and help homeless animals should dare do a good job or speak out to alert town officials of problems at the town’s animal shelter, then they will be slandered, punished and banned from doing any more good,” Donnelly said. “Enough is enough. These attacks on the public must stop. The culture of cover it up instead of fix it up has to end,” he said. Donnelly also emphasized that the public demands access to their government, as well as fiscal responsibility and transparency.

“You certainly have a lot of allegations,” Murray said in response to Donnelly’s tirade. Murray defended the Town of Hempstead’s track record for financial transparency. “I’m proud of the fact that the Town of Hempstead, to my knowledge, to this day is the only municipality on Long Island that actually puts its budget online so that people can take a look at the budget in the privacy and comfort of their own home, during the budget process,” Murray said, adding “Transparency is the cornerstone of our financial practices. As far as fiscal responsibility, the Town of Hempstead has a AAA bond rating. It is the highest bond rating you can possibly have.”

David Bernacchi of the Pets 4 Luv Foundation spoke to the board and claims to have helped many of the shelter’s animals that were in extremely poor health. “There are some very good things about the shelter and I won’t deny that but there are certain things that need change. In any business there is not 100 percent of good,” he said.

Bernacchi stated that through volunteer Diane Madden, he saved more than 100 dogs from the shelter and found homes for them. He exhibited photographic evidence of a dog named Romeo, who had previously been housed at the animal shelter in 2007.

“This was Romeo, he was up for adoption, sat for two weeks with a hernia that looked like a baseball in his belly and nothing was done. I took him out the same day and took him to the veterinarian. Long story short, it cost me almost $3,000 for all the surgery and his health,” Bernacchi said.

Murray interjected, “And again, this is your allegation.”     

“I never get an answer for your office,” Bernacchi said. “Again, I am trying to be on your side. It’s not 100 percent fair. You have problems there. I have gotten animals out. I am trying to give you the benefit of the doubt. There does have to be some change…I have written you letter after letter after letter to sit with you and discuss the problems,” Bernacchi added.

Murray responded, “If you thought it was so terrible in 2007 and you didn’t feel compelled to come forward, I don’t understand that.” Bernacchi retorted that as long as volunteer Diane Madden was working at the shelter, “the dog stood a chance.”

Bernacchi became irate and emphatically claimed he had tried contacting various Town of Hempstead staff members for more than a year long before the three volunteers had raised concerns. “Why did you not answer one of my three letters, one of 15 emails, one of my hundred calls? ” Bernacchi questioned.

“You just sit here and say you know the abuse that’s going on in the Hempstead Animal Shelter is absolutely terrible, I live and die for dogs and cats and that’s wonderful but if you knew this happened in 2007, My God, If I were you I’d be screaming up and down,” Murray argued.

“Why didn’t I start screaming then? Because it’s the same now. Dealing with you is running into a brick wall, you never get through,” Bernacchi said.

Murray responded that he should have gotten a call back from someone at the shelter. “On that basis, I will apologize on behalf the animal shelter who were supposed to call you back. I can’t call back every single person. I probably get 300 phone calls a day; I can’t call everybody back.”

In November of 2010, Town of Hempstead officials announced they are in the process of implementing a new progressive pet care agenda focused on enhancing the level of pet care at its shelter and expanding upon its aggressive pet adoption/placement efforts. The measure comes in the midst of an internal review of policies and procedures at this, the largest municipal shelter on Long Island. Initiatives included in the agenda are full-time veterinary services, animal behavorist services, a pet rescue liaison, and a canine corral pet play area. The agenda also includes pet adoption promotional programs, web posting and starting up the volunteer program, which is scheduled to commence in the next couple of months.

The Town of Hempstead is also expanding Internet postings of all shelter pets available for adoption. Diane Madden questioned the progress of the new pet care agenda and asked if Murray was aware that the shelter has never put any photos of lost animals on the Shelter’s recently created Facebook page.

“You have no stray animals? The last time someone counted you have 60 to 65 stray animals. You have a lost and found site on your Facebook page. You launched a Facebook site in December and that’s not one animal at that site,” Madden said. Madden added that shelter reform and a volunteer program is needed, including putting in air conditioning into the shelter. Murray noted that the temperature is always set to 70 degrees in the shelter.

Lucille DeFina also asked the board when the volunteer program would begin again. “We are not people who know how to give up easily. We work day in and day out, endless amount of hours. We work behind the scenes with no recognition,” she said. “All we did get was ridicule from your staff. So regardless, we continue to find homes, right placements for Town of Hempstead animals,” DeFina added.

In an official statement, the Town of Hempstead commented after the board meeting. “Anyone who has visited animal shelters in our region knows Hempstead Town’s facility is the cleanest, best run dog and cat care shelter around. Staff members who care about animals give loving attention to our furry friends who are awaiting adoption. Independent rescue groups like the renowned Rescue Ink have heralded our shelter as top notch. What’s more, the town received the highest grades in a recent New York State review of the shelter. Recent rescues by shelter workers spoke volumes about the passion and professionalism of the town’s animal care team.

“Attacks on the shelter’s budget are uninformed and demonstrate profound ignorance of municipal budgeting. Hempstead spends money where it counts. For example, we spent $220,000 on health care for animals while another major Long Island town spent $18,000 on medical expenses.  Similarly, Hempstead feeds its pets $175,000 in food contrasted with a mere $5,000 by one of the Island’s other largest townships,” the release stated.

The next public town board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Nathan L.H. Bennett Pavilion at One Washington St., in Hempstead.