One consent agenda item being considered at the Jan. 24 San Benito County Board of Supervisors' meeting should have been a slam dunk as far as Supervisor Robert Rivas was concerned, but it turned into an extended debate when Supervisor Anthony Botelho asked to have it pulled and quipped, “I think you’re putting the cart before the horse in this item.”
The joke brought a round of laughter in the chambers, but Kevin O’Neill, wearing his deputy director’s hat for the county Office of Emergency Services (OES), stuck to his guns in defending the agenda item that requested the board to approve spending $20,000 from a Homeland Security Grant Program (HSGP) on a horse trailer, which would be used to rescue horses and other large animals during evacuations.
“What we have is a pretty expensive horse trailer,” Botelho said. “I know we had some large animal rescues this past week. I’m not saying we don’t need a livestock trailer, but I think we need to have a better coordinated program with the volunteers of the equestrian rescue group and animal control, coordinated with OES, rather than buying a trailer that I have serious questions whether or not animal control even has a vehicle that can pull it.”
Botelho asked O’Neill directly if animal control has a truck that can pull a large trailer. O’Neill said it does. Botelho said he was going to vote against the agenda item because he believed there was a lack of coordination between volunteers.
“I would spend money on the program first and then worry about the equipment as we progress,” he said.
O’Neill responded by saying that the request for the trailer came from the Hollister Police Department on behalf of animal control.
“It was submitted to the Gang of Five (Hollister Police Chief, Chief of the Hollister Fire Department, County Sheriff, County Fire Chief, and County Health Officer) to use the Homeland Security Grant funds ($133,000) and approved by the Gang of Five,” he said, adding that various departments submit proposals and the Gang of Five decides which ones are appropriate.
“There has to be a nexus to terrorism,” he continued. “During the last fiscal year, the Hollister Police Department submitted a request for this trailer. They approved it and they do have the capacity to tow it. Animal control has said they can manage the trailer and utilize it. They probably would have utilized it over the last week and a half.”
O’Neill said that previously, and during the recent storms, private trailers of select volunteers have been used. He said it would be wise if animal control had its own trailer just in case there were no volunteers available or the volunteers could use the trailer as the volunteer group is strengthened.
“You just about got me sold,” Botelho said and then posed another question. “Did you go out for any sort of bids or did you just go to 101 Livestock?”
O’Neill said animal control provided the specifications for the type and size trailer needed and only two vendors could be identified who carried the required trailer: 101 Livestock and another in Southern California. He said the trailer offered at 101 Livestock was cheaper and the company was much closer, which would save money on shipping and preparation. Botelho was satisfied with the due diligence in selecting 101 Livestock.
He then asked O’Neill how the purchase of the trailer might affect the purchase of emergency radios. He said there are “blind spots” in the unincorporated areas of the county and wanted to know if radios had been acquired. O’Neill said an agenda item would be ready for the next supervisor meeting to consider approval of the $40,000 to $50,000 cost that also would be funded by the Homeland Security grant.
“This board has expressed that needs to be resolved,” Botelho said. “As long as that’s being resolved, you have the money and it’s getting done. I just didn’t want to spend $20,000 on a horse trailer when we should spend that money on fixing our radio program.”
O’Neill told Botelho that the only reason the trailer came before the board first was because more effort had already taken place to develop a plan. Botelho concluded by stating that he thinks animal control personnel are using their personal cell phones to communicate and believes they should be using radios instead.
“That’s part of the issues that we’ve had with animal control as far as tracking their calls, duration and costs,” Botelho said. “It’s good to be able to communicate with all agencies during emergencies like we had out at Lovers Lane.”
Supervisor Jerry Muenzer said he had some of the same concerns as Botelho.
“I couldn’t see bothering Kevin about this item over the weekend because he had a little bit more important things he was worried about than a horse trailer,” he said. “But I have some of the same concerns as Supervisor Botelho and am glad it was pulled. I know it’s the Gang of Five’s money, they take a vote on it, but I know in Intergovernmental (Committee) we are discussing animal control issues with the City of Hollister. I don’t think we realized that animal control is dealing with large animals.”
Meunzer recommend that instead of voting on the agenda item it should be continued to a future meeting so it could be first discussed at more length during an Intergovernmental Committee meeting to better understand how animal control dealt with the situation during the storms.
Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz took an opportunity to remind everyone that the grant money did not belong to the Gang of Five.
“They can make recommendations and the Board of Supervisors can approve or deny their request?” he asked O’Neill, who said the money is awarded to the county and the Gang of Five prioritizes the projects. He confirmed De La Cruz’s contention that if the supervisors do not approve a project, the money is not allocated.
During public comments, Hollister Police Chief David Westrick told the board that animal control and volunteers rescued 133 animals along Lovers Lane. Eighty-three were being kept at the animal shelter and the rest were at Bolado Park. He said large animals have been rescued as long as there has been an animal control facility.
“The thought we gave concerning the horse trailer would be if we need to rapidly deploy we could do that prior to even calling out volunteers,” Westrick said. “For us, it’s about the efficiency of deploying those needed services as quickly as possible and using the appropriate funding through Homeland Security.”
Candice Hooper told the board she was speaking as a resident of the Lovers Lane area and as district attorney. As the D.A., she said, “Animal control does not just watch over puppy dogs and kitty cats. They handle large animals. To rely on our volunteers, who are great, but sometimes they’re not available. Sometimes they cannot get to their equipment. Animal control does have the need. And we do get criminal cases involving large animals.”
As a resident, she said added: “As a rancher and after experiencing what we just did, the call-out that came, the rescuers that came, the time it took to call these volunteers, to go home to get their vehicles, bring them, could be shortened by animal control having this stock trailer.”
Muenzer thanked Hooper for bringing up criminal cases involving animals. He asked her how the removal of animals in such cases had been handled in the past. She said it was her belief that Julie Carreiro, of animal control, would go home to get her personal trailer.
“She would have to leave animal control, go home to get her personal trailer, go get the animal, and take it, usually, to 101 Livestock,” she said.
Muenzer asked Hooper how often there were criminal cases involving large animals. She said it varies. Westrick said there were a dozen or so cases in 2016.
Supervisor Mark Medina asked Hooper whether the county be at risk of liability if a volunteer used a personal trailer. She responded that she assumed there would be. County Counsel Matthew Granger said he hoped there would be insurance in place through the City of Hollister because the county contracts through the city for animal control services.
From Hollister resident Marty Richman's perspective, the problem during emergencies is that the county is operating as a government agency, whereas volunteers caught up in the emergency are not thinking about whether they have insurance.
“They’re going home to get their own trailers. They’re not going to charge the county or the city. They’re going to take their chances and go out and rescue the animals,” he said. “I think a lot of that goes on in San Benito County and government agencies appreciate it enough.”
Richman said it’s one thing for volunteers to come out and help the community during an emergency and quite another to roll out at 3 in the morning for a criminal action.
“You’re not going to find somebody to do that,” he said, “so you need to have the trailer. I’d rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it. When it comes to emergency services, put the bandages and emergency food in the closet and hope you never use it or worry about what it costs.”
Valarie Egland, who lives in San Juan Bautista, reasoned that a trailer does not need a lot of maintenance; it does not have a motor, and simply sits waiting for a need.
“It’s something that once invested in is going to last a long time,” she said. “It’s an investment that’s wise. When you need it, you need it, and at this point we should have something in place.”
Botelho said all of his questions had been answered and he could vote for the expenditure, but continued to insist more organization is needed to better coordinate the use of volunteers.
“We have to find people who know what they’re doing with large animal rescues and it’s not just somebody who likes horses,” he said. “That program has to be beefed up a bit because this is not the last emergency in our county.”
Rivas said he appreciated the scrutiny the agenda item had received. He agreed with Richman that when something happens in the middle of the night, a trailer would address that need. He said he supported the agenda item and it passed with a unanimous vote.