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Center fights to keep mission despite challenges

Date: 7/20/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD If e-mails that have been circulating among animal advocates in Hampden County are any indication, the Thomas J. O'Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center - which serves Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, West Springfield and Hampden - is facing some serious challenges, not the least of which is the possibility of one participating community leaving the cooperative.

Barbara Hays, the outgoing executive director, confirmed the center is coping with budget cuts, but not everything that is being said about the center is necessarily accurate. Hays is scheduled to depart the center at the end of the month, and her supervisor, Health and Human Services Director Helen Caulton-Harris, told Reminder Publications a search for a new director will take place.

Hays said the center on Cottage Street in Springfield lost three positions through Gov. Deval Patrick's mid-year budget cuts in March - two animal care personnel and one field officer. Currently, the center has a total staff of 10.5 positions with four animal control officers answering calls in the participating communities.

The center's veterinarian did not renew the contract with the center, but the center has interim vet care until a more permanent arrangement can be found, Hays said.

With the closing of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) Center in Springfield, Hays said the number of animals for which the O'Connor Center now cares has risen 40 percent. Overall, the number of animals has increased. She said that four and half years ago, the O'Connor Center cared for 2,500 animals. Last year the number increased to 4,000.

Besides the closing of the MSPCA shelter, the economy has contributed to the increased number of pets being given up by their owners, Hays said. Housing changes and lost jobs are among those reasons.

"The needs are just so great," she said.

What has benefited the center has been a "tidal wave of animal adoptions," Hays said. Along with the increased adoptions, there has also been an outpouring of volunteers, she added. The center has an immediate need for non-clumping cat litter, extra-heavy-duty 55-gallon trash bags, laundry detergent and bleach, according to its Web site.

What has also helped the center is support from the TJO Foundation, a separate non-profit organization that raises funds for the center, Hays said.

Prior to the announcement that Dakin Animal Shelter would purchase the MSPCA Springfield facility, Hays said there were discussions about organizing a private non-profit animal care facility. With Dakin's purchase, those discussions "slowed down." The question Hays posed is whether or not there is enough potential community support to fund a second non-profit shelter.

Hays said the impact of the defection of some of the current communities is "difficult to say."

West Springfield Mayor Edward Gibson confirmed that his community is considering pulling out of the O'Connor Center and has been speaking with officials in Westfield and Agawam about a mutual center for those communities for over a year. He explained the decision was made for Westfield to establish its own shelter, but one with excess capacity that could accommodate animals from Agawam and West Springfield once an agreement between those communities has been finalized.

Gibson said the city of Springfield had sent out a notice to the other communities that it was voiding the current contract and wanted to enter into discussions about a new arrangement. The amount of money each community pays is based on the number of residents and Gibson believes the $73,000 West Springfield pays yields a "marginal return on the investment."

If Springfield officials are looking to reduce the contributions, Gibson said he would consider the options to West Springfield.

Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette said that Chicopee is not considering dropping out.

"I'd hate to see the service get curtailed or eliminated," he said.

In Chicopee alone, there is not enough need for the city to operate its owns facilities, he said.

Bissonnette noted the O'Connor facility is on property owned by the Picknelly family and that Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno recently negotiated a decrease in rent for the center.

Bissonnette said regional approaches to problems is a favorite theme of the Patrick Administration and there is some state money for cooperative ventures between communities.

For Hays, the budget cuts and politics are second to the mission of the center.

"The public needs to be vigilant. Animals need to be cared for properly," she said.